James Bohee (1844-1897)
‘The best banjoist in the world’, who brought black American culture to Britain.
James and his brother George were Canadian banjo players of Caribbean descent. They played professionally, initially touring the United States and then performing in London in 1880. Their show was a roaring success.
The brothers’ popular act was exciting to watch, because they played and danced at the same time. They also wrote their own material, and their songs were widely copied.
After their first successful visit to London, James decided to stay. He toured his minstrel show around Britain, often returning to London to perform with George.
There was such a craze for the banjo at the time that James began giving lessons. His most famous pupils were the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, and his wife.
James was an incredibly talented musician, promoted as the ‘Paganini of the Banjo’. He was also probably the most influential representative of black American culture in Britain at the time.
He and George wrote and played sentimental songs that appealed to European audiences. But their repertoire also included antislavery songs, cakewalks (dances originating in slave plantations) and minstrel songs, which introduced their audiences to black American heritage.
In the early 1890s, the brothers recorded some banjo duets onto a phonograph (an early form of recording device using wax cylinders). They were probably the first ever African-Americans to do so. Sadly the cylinders haven’t survived.