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Historical references to the origin of the banjo state that the banjo was brought to the New World in the seventeenth century.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 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.