The Banjo's Origin
Historical references to the origin of the banjo state that the banjo was brought to the New World in the seventeenth century. In fact, the banjo or a form representing a gourd type of instrument could date as early as 1630 or 1640.
Could the banjo be thought of as an American instrument or does the credit for its birth go to Africa? Historical research of the banjo's true origin, if done correctly would entail securing documentation or artifacts that provide evidence which dates the instrument path through the ages from the African continent to the West Indies and to the New World.
Did native Africans play gourds that may have developed over hundreds of years into an instrument similar to what we know of as today's modern banjo? Were these gourds derivatives of instruments from Asia that were introduced to Africa? How was this instrument influenced by the ceremonial customs of the African people who were subsequently forced into slave labor stretching from Africa to Europe to the Caribbean and ultimately to the North American continent? What musical influences were important in history that changed the popularity of the banjo from a four string to to a five string instrument? These and many other questions will be addressed in a series of articles by www.Fretmentor.com.
The truth is that the historical record, whether it be derived from artwork, paintings, manuscripts or journals of explorers, may only reveal part of the story of this instrument's true origin. Further research may be ongoing to study the true path that this instrument took over the course of a couple of centuries. It may be that the research conducted may only provide a path of which some have gone on record as reporting that the banjo was brought to the New World by African slaves. Yet, little seems to be documented to identify how the instrument was crafted or invented by the natives of Africa. Thus, maybe that is where answer of the banjo's true origin lies.
The African Slave Trade Connection
The historical record of this instruments path may only begin in the 1600s. Evidence provides that the banjo, or an instrument that resembled a four string banjo, existed in the West Indies. It is well documented that slaves from North Africa were taken from the homeland to Europe, the West Indies, and the New World of America.
The Slaves of West Indies and American colonies may have been stripped of their names and their identities with their families back home but they maintained their cultural heritage.
Music and Dance was an essential part of the slaves life, temporarily ridding them of the stressful conditions on the plantation. A Sunday sabbath was a regular occurrence for the slaves on the plantations.
Sir Hans Sloan
The first recorded evidence of the banjo is documented in the journals or sojourn of a British physician, explorer and collector by the name Sir Hans Sloan. Sir Hans Sloan, a noted physician in Great Britain, was commission by the British government to travel to the Carribean islands. His Sojourn, a historical journal which documents his travels and observations to the Caribbean, was written in 1687 and published in 1707.
The 1687 Sojourn entitled"A Voyage to the Islands of Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christopher and Jamaica"1 addresses Sloan's observation of the slaves in dance and music as follows:
The Negros are much given to Venery, and although hard wrought, will at pights, or on Feaft days Dance and Sing, thei. So~gs are all bawdy, and leading that way. They have feverl foQrs of I1nrmment in imitation of Lutes, made of fmall Goyr4s fitted with Necks, frung with Horfe hairs, or the peeled ftalks f climbing Blants or Withs.
Thefe Inftruments are fometimes made of hollow'd Timber covered with Parchment or other Skin wetted, having a Bow for its Neck, the Strings ty'd longer or (horter, as they would alter their founds. The Figures of fomeof thefe Infiruments are hereafter graved.
They have likewife in their Dances Ratdtes ty'd to their Legs and Wrifts, and in their Hands, with which they make a noife, keeping time with one who makes a found anfwecing it on the mouth of an empty Gourd or Jar with his Hand.
Their Dances confift in great ativity and firength of Body, and keeping time, if it can be. They very often tie Cows Tails to their Rumps, and add fuch other odd things to their Bodies in feveral places, as gives them a very extraordinary appearance.
Upon one of their Feftivals when a great many of the Negro Muficians were gathered together, I defired Mr. Baptife, the beft Mufician there to take the Words they fung and fet them to Mufick, which follows.
You muft clap Hands when the
Bafe is plaid, and cry, Alla, Alla.
To understand the Old English language, one needs to carefully interpret the language or translate it into modern English. You will notice that the "s" in today's alphabet was written as an "f" in this period when the sojourn was drafted. Sloan identifies that the Negroes had several instruments that imitated Lutes (popular in Europe for many centuries). These instruments were made from small gourds and fitted with necks. According to Sloan, they were strung with horse hairs or the peeled stalks of climbing plants or Withs. Sloan further states that these instruments are sometimes made of hollowed timber covered with parchment or other wetted skin, having a bow for its neck. The strings are tied longer or shorter as they would alter their sounds.
Illustrated in Sloan's sojourn are the instruments that he refers to as "strum strums". While it is highly likely that this instrument dates earlier than the slave trade, Sloan's illustration is valuable, since it is the first known pictoral documentation of the banjo.
Sir Hans Sloan's sojourn is an important piece of historical evidence which helps trace the history and origin of the banjo. While tracing an instrument's origin may be a time-consuming and sometimes seemingly a futile task, the sojourn at minimum, establishes a written timeline for studying the true roots of this instrument.
Ironically, in reviewing the sojourn, it is noted that Sir Hans Sloan is recognized more for his botanical studies of plant life rather than for his observation about the musical and dance rituals of Jamaican slaves and native of Africa.
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1"A Voyage to the Islands of Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christopher and Jamaica" , Sir Hans Sloan, 1687 (Published 1707)
Sir Hans Sloan, Courtesy of the British Museum, Used By Permission