This is post 2 of 4 in the series Banjo Roots and Branches.
The wood-rimmed five-string banjo emerged in the United States in the context of blackface minstrel performance around 1840. Its immediate forebear is the early gourd banjo, which was developed by enslaved West Africans in the Caribbean during the 17th century. The design of the early gourd banjo is fundamentally West African, but the instrument is not an exact replica of any known African instrument.
This is the second of four posts that mine the latest scholarship on banjo history from the book Banjo Roots and Branches (University of Illinois Press, 2018). The first post explored the African roots of the banjo. This post will look at the developments that took place in the Caribbean in the context of the transatlantic slave trade. The focus is on two early gourd banjos, one from Jamaica and one from Haiti, that share remarkable similarities with a banjo featured in a South Carolina painting from the late 18th century.
Most of the information in this post is adapted from Chapter 7, “‘Strum Strumps’ and ‘Sheepskin Guitars’: The Early Gourd Banjo and Clues to its West African Roots in the Seventeenth-Century Circum Caribbean” by ethno-organologist and musician Shlomo Pestcoe, and Chapter 9, “The Haitian Banza and the American Banjo Lineage” by researcher and banjo builder Pete Ross.
African Instruments in the Caribbean
The earliest historic record of a West African plucked lute in the Caribbean comes from Cartagena de Indias, present-day Columbia’s port city of Cartagena on the Caribbean Sea. In the 17th century, Cartagena de Indias was the hub of the Spanish transatlantic slave trade. In his 1627 book, Spanish Jesuit priest Alonso de Sandoval wrote that the enslaved people from Angola “have naturally happy hearts and play little guitars called banzas, played by placing the head of the guitar on the breast in a very delicate and graceful way.” Banza was a West-Central African general term for string instruments. Pestcoe determines that the playing technique described makes it more likely that the banzas referred to by Sandoval were not lutes (string instruments with necks that are distinct from their bodies – like banjos) but some other type of African chordophone, such as a pluriarc.
Sandoval also wrote about “the Guineans” and their love of music and dance. The Portuguese and Spanish referred to West Africa’s Upper Guinea Coast, from Senegal down to Sierra Leanne, as Guinea. “The energy that they put into shouting and dancing is amazing. Some play guitars similar to our Spanish-style guitars, although they are made of rough sheepskin.” Pestcoe concludes that these sheepskin guitars may possibly have been early gourd banjos, but there is not enough available information to draw that conclusion.
The Creole Bania in Suriname
The oldest known early gourd banjo still in existence is the Creole bania. British-Dutch captain John Gabriel Stedman brought the instrument from the South American country of Suriname (part of the Caribbean) to Holland in 1777. After examining the instrument, Ross determined that it was an early gourd banjo, but “we cannot reliably say how similar it is to the ancestors of the modern banjo as they existed in the eighteenth-century North American colonies.
The Strum-Strump in Jamaica
The earliest written record of an early gourd banjo comes from the writing of Sir Hans Sloane. Sloane was a British physician and naturalist who spent fifteen months in Jamaica in the late 1680s. Sloane published a book in 1707 called A Voyage to the Islands of Madera Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica. The book primarily cataloged plants, trees, and wildlife, but it also included this observation from Sloane’s stay in Jamaica:
The Negroes are much given to Venery, and although hard wrought, will at nights, or on Feast days Dance and Sing; Their songs are all bawdy, and leading that way. They have several sorts of Instruments in imitation of Lutes, made of small Gourds fitted with Necks, strung with Horse hairs, or the peeled stalks of climbing Plants or Withs. These Instruments are sometimes made of hollow’d Timber covered with Parchment or other Skin wetter, having a Bow for its Neck, the Strings ty’d longer or shorter, as they would alter their sounds. The Figures of some of these Instruments are hereafter graved.
The caption to Sloane’s illustration, translated from Latin, refers to the two instruments in front as “Strum Strumps.” The coiled plant fiber pictured below the instruments is used to make their strings. The instrument in the back is a form of harp unique to West Africa.
The website Musical Passage offers an audio interpretation of musical notation that is found in Voyage to the Islands. Admitting that not enough information is available to recreate the music precisely, project collaborators Laurent Dubois, David Garner, and Mary Caton Lingold present recordings that “create an opportunity to reflect on how this early music may have sounded.”
The Banza in Haiti
In 1841 French abolitionist, writer, traveler and collector Victor Schoelcher brought an instrument he collected in Haiti to France. The instrument went relatively unnoticed in museum collections for 160 years. In 2003 Saskia Willaert, a curator at the Musical Instruments Museum in Brussels, found the banza in the collection of Paris’s Musee de la Musique. She was searching for material for a showcase of African precursors to the banjo as part of a larger banjo exhibition at her museum. When the inclusion of this previously-unknown instrument was announced, Ross and fellow-researcher Ulf Jagfors made a trip to Brussels to examine this “Holy Grail of early banjo research.”
According to Ross:
As I examined the banjo, it became evident that this particular gourd banjo tradition was the one that gave birth to the well-known banjo of the present day United States.
Connections to the Contemporary Banjo
The earliest known image of a banjo in North America is John Rose’s painting The Old Plantation. Most likely painted in South Carolina in the 1780s, it depicts enslaved African Americans having a dance on a plantation.
The Jamaican strum strump, the Haitian banza, and the instrument depicted in The Old Plantation all share three critical design features that differentiate them from the known plucked spike lutes in West Africa:
- A flat, fretless fingerboard – West African instruments have rounded stick necks.
- Wooden friction tuning pegs – Strings are tied to the neck of West African instruments with leather or cloth strips that are slid up or down the neck to tune the instrument by tightening or loosening the strings.
- The way the neck enters and attaches the gourd body – There are several structural similarities in the three New World instruments that are not shared by West African instruments.
The fact that the features are found in these three instruments across time and distance suggest that this particular banjo-building tradition was firmly ingrained in the New World.
Furthermore, many details in these early gourd banjos are present in the instruments built by European American banjo makers in the mid-19th century. In the 1840s, William Boucher, Jr. became the first builder to mass-produce banjos. His instruments were commonly used in minstrel shows and contributed to the growing popularity of the banjo with European Americans.
The banjos built by Boucher and other mid-19th century European American banjo builders had the now-common wood-rimmed body instead of a gourd body. Despite this difference, it is clear that the builders were influenced by early gourd banjo designs. They incorporated the heel-less neck design of the early gourd banjos rather than having a pronounced heel at the bottom end of the neck, as was common on European guitars and violins.
The neck on the Haitian banza narrows as it passes through the body of the instrument. This feature distinguishes it from African banjo-like instruments while connecting it to the work of European American banjo builders who incorporated this concept in the design of rim stick. The necks on 1840s Boucher banjos resemble the neck of the Haitian banza. The resemblance would be even greater if what appears to be a planned cut had been carried out, making one edge of the banza’s neck straight.
All three banjos differ enough from African instruments while sharing some details specific to later banjos played and made by European Americans to place them at a point in the banjo’s history where it was no longer simply a relocated African instrument, but on its way to attaining the structure of the well-known antebellum nineteenth century banjo.
Part 3 of this 4 part series explores the banjo in 18th and 19th century North America.