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The Banjo and African American Musical Culture

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Hans Sloane

Two banjos and a harp from Sir Hans Sloane's 1707 book, "A Voyage to the Islands of Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica," that records Sloane's stay in Jamaica from 1687 to 1688. (Image courtesy of www.slaveryimages.org, compiled by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite, and sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library.)(2)

This illustration is the earliest known definitive record of the banjo's Caribbean birth. A Scots naturalist and physician, Sloane visited Jamaica between 1687 and 1689. The two Jamaican instruments, called "Strum Strumps" (top left), resemble ekontings and bunchundos, having gourd sound chambers covered by skin and a neck that sticks through the gourd. Unlike any indigenous West African instrument, they have flat fingerboards and friction tuning pegs, features from European instruments. This combination distinguishes these instruments as banjos. Details of the illustration suggest that a short thumb string and a moveable bridge that once adorned Sloan's "Strum Strumps" are missing from this illustration. Like other illustrations of early gourd banjos and the few instruments now in European museums, Sloane's banjos were not crude jury-rigged products of castoff materials. Their makers knew how to make instruments whose sophistication involved not just their functional abilities, but their physical beauty as well as their place as spiritual and cultural symbols. There is nothing crude or primitive about them.

Innovators drew on West African roots and took advantage of New World opportunities to create the banjo. They replaced the stick necks of West African lutes with flat fingerboards. Tuning pegs made banjos easier to tune than Senegambian lutes tuned with sliding tuning rings. Most early gourd banjos had four gut or fiber strings (often three long strings and one short thumb string), although some had three strings, two long and one short.

From the late 1600s to the early 1800s, banjos rang across the Caribbean: in Barbados, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Barbados, Jamaica, St. Kitts, Antigua, and Saint-Croix, as well as in Guyana and Suriname. Yet major areas of African population in the Caribbean with prolonged and intense exchange with Central and West Africa, such as Cuba and Puerto Rico, and similar areas on the mainland of Central America and South America, such as Brazil, yield no reports of early banjos. Though both folk and manufactured banjos spread in Africa in the late nineteenth century after the tours of North American and British banjo entertainers, no early banjos have been found in Africa. Rather than an African import, banjos were a creation of West Africans in specific areas of the Caribbean.

(2) This section, and the next, is completely indebted to Shlomo Pestcoe's paper, "The Banjar Pictured: Considering the Depiction of The African American Early Gourd Banjo in 'The Old Plantation'", presented 17 May 2012 at the joint meeting of the American Musical Instrument Society (AMIS) and the International Committee of Musical Instrument Museums and Collections (CIMCIM) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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