SHLOMO PESTCOE  שלמה פּסטקאָ

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* The Ekonting: A Link to the Banjo's West African Heritage *

Please note: This is not a commercial site. I do not sell or appraise musical instruments. Please do not contact me to request that I identify and provide background information on a specific instrument in your possession and/or evaluate its worth. That's a job for an accredited professional appraiser, which I'm not. That said, I'll be glad to answer questions and discuss any subject I present here, so long as that one proviso is respected.  

 

 

The Early Banjo in the New World

The story of the banjo begins in the 17th century when African slaves in the New World began making and playing lute-type string instruments with drum-like gourd bodies. In 1678, the French colonial government of Martinique restated an edict issued twenty four years earlier prohibiting African slaves from gathering together for dances and socializing. The new ordinance specified kalendas. More commonly known as la calinda (also calenda), the kalenda was a social gathering of slaves in which they danced dances of clear African origin to the accompaniment of a drum or two and the banza. (In later years, some reports also mentioned the inclusion of the violin in a typical calinda band.)

Eleven years later, Sir Hans Sloane wrote the first report of the early banjo which gave a description of the instrument. In the account of his 1687 sojourn through the West Indies (written in 1689 but not published until 1707), Sir Hans described the "Negroes" in Jamaica as playing strum-strums, which were "Instruments in imitation of Lutes, made from small Gourds fitted with Necks, strung with Horse hairs, or the peeled stalks of climbing Plants or Withs."

Banza and strum-strum were just two of the many names for the earliest forms of the banjo, which made their first appearance in the Caribbean, most likely sometime in the 1630s or '40s. From 1689 on through the early 19th century, European observers documented other terms for these instruments such as Creole bania (Surinam), bangil (Barbados, Jamaica), banshaw (St. Kitts) and merry-wang (Jamaica). Two of the most common names were banza in the French, Spanish and Portuguese colonies and banjar (also banjer, banjor, banja, banjah, etc.) in the English colonies.

The first documentation of the banjo in North America was in 1737. In March of that year, an article in the New York Weekly Journal reported on a Pinkster celebration, held in the fields outside of New York City, in which blacks danced to the music of drums, fiddle, and banger.

(Pinkster, a traditional Dutch celebration of the Christian holiday Pentecost and springtime, was adopted by early African American communities in New York and New Jersey. It evolved into a unique local festival that reflected a mix of African, European, and Native American influences, akin to Mardi Gras in Louisiana and Carnival in the Caribbean and Brazil.)

Twelve years later, we have one of the earliest mentions of the actual term banjo, the name by which the instrument would be known the world over from the 1840s on. In 1749, The Pennsylvania Gazette contained a notice of a runaway slave from Maryland, a "Negroe named Scipio," who was known to be headed to Philadelphia "where he has friends." The notice specified that Scipio "plays on the banjo and can sing." Apparently, he did make it to Philly because four months later there was another notice in the paper concerning Scipio. It seems that he was captured there but managed to escape. This particular notice states that Scipio "plays on the banjou and sings with it." Yet this is not the last we hear of this slave musician was very determined to attain his freedom. In 1757, we have one more runaway slave notice for Scipio, as he made yet another brave attempt at desperate flight to Philadelphia. In this last notice, we're told that Scipio "plays well on the banjoe."

The late 18th century journal of Englishman Nicholas Creswell supplies us with one of the earliest descriptions of the banjo being played with the fiddle [violin]. This instrumental combination would be thrust unto the world stage on February 6, 1843 with the premiere of the first known minstrel band The Virginia Minstrels at New York City's famed Bowery Amphitheatre. The duet of fiddle and banjo would become the musical hallmark of minstrelsy-- the first big pop craze, based on vernacular African American music, that America would export to the rest of the world. Likewise, it would eventually be the principal instrumental combination in African American and European American folk traditions which would lead to the creation of ragtime and old-time country music in the late 19th century. 

In July of 1774, Creswell  was sailing to Barbados when his ship, the schooner John, anchored for a stopover at St. Mary's River, along the Georgia and Florida border. There he was invited to a local barbecue and dance party which he described in his journal as follows: "These Barbecues are Hogs, roasted whole. This was under a large Tree. A great number of young people met together with a Fiddle and Banjo played by two Negroes...." Two months earlier, Creswell had observed African Americans dancing in Maryland to the banjo: "[The Negroes] meet together and amuse themselves with dancing to the Banjo. This musical instrument (if it may be so called) is made of a Gourd, something in the imitation of a Guitar, with only four strings and played with the fingers in the same manner."

While they differed in what they were called, these early banjos all shared certain structural characteristics:

  • Gourd bodies, either round or oval, with a skin head;
  • Three to four strings with the top string being a short chanterelle drone string, akin to the fifth "thumb string" on the later 5-string banjo. One notable exception is the Jamaican strum-strum reported by Sir Hans Sloane, which was depicted in his book as being a 2-string instrument;  

  • A full “spike” fretless stick neck which ran under the head for the length of the gourd body to pierce the tail end;

  • A footed bridge (string-bearer) which sat on the head.

There's only one reference to wooden bodies in the early documentation of the banjo and it's in Sir Hans Sloane account of his visit to Jamaica in 1687, an addendum to his aforementioned description of the gourd-bodied strum-strums: "These instruments are sometimes made of hollow'd Timber covered with Parchment or other Skin wetted, having a Bow for its Neck, the Strings ty'd longer or shorter, as they would alter their sounds...."

However, the reference above to "instruments... made of hollow'd Timber... having a Bow for its Neck" may not be a description of plucked lutes at all. In the 1707 publication of Sloane's 1689 travelogue, from which the account quoted above is taken, there is an illustration of three string instruments: the two in the foreground are gourd-bodied plucked lutes, behind them is a West African harp-lute (also bridge-harp) with a narrow wooden box body, skin head, and a bow stick neck, similar to the seperewa of Ghana's Ashanti or the duu of the Guere of Cote d'Ivoire [The Ivory Coast].

Sometime in the late 19th century, a myth arose crediting pioneering European American minstrel Joel Walker Sweeney (1813-1860) with the invention of the banjo's short thumb string. However, all the evidence points to this being a purely African survival. Short drone strings are found on all varieties of griot lutes, as well as on many folk lutes from the Upper Guinea Coast region of West Africa like the Jola akonting, Manjak bunchundo (see the photo below), the Balanta kisinta and the Papel busunde. Even more conclusive is the iconographic evidence found in The Old Plantation (The Abbey Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center, Williamsburg, VA), an anonymous folk painting from South Carolina, c.1790, which is the oldest extant depiction of an early gourd banjo in North America. The illustration at the right hand top of this page is a detail from this painting showing the instrument in question. Here we can clearly see that this early banjo has a short thumb string in addition to three long melody strings.

Depicted in the photo below is the bunchundo, the 3-string folk lute of the Manjak people of Guinea-Bissau and Gambia, akin to the Jola akonting (Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau). It has two long melody strings of varying lengths and a short thumb string. Compare this photo to the above detail from The Old Plantation. The two plucked lutes are strikingly similar. Interesting to note, both lutes are accompanied by found-object percussive instruments which are common household vessels-- an overturned earthenware jug or pot in The Old Plantation and a glass palm wine bottle in the photo of the bunchundo. Even more remarkable is the fact that both makeshift drums are played in exactly the same fashion with two thin sticks.

 

The Ancestral Home of Banjo: West Africa

For the contemporary European and European American observers who left us the first descriptions of these slave instruments, there was no doubt as to their place of origin: Africa.

In his Notes on the State of Virginia (1781), Thomas Jefferson wrote, "The instrument proper to [the slaves] is the banjar, which they brought hither from Africa...."  Eight years later, an Englishman, John Luffman, also confirmed this in his travelogue, A Brief Account of the Island of Antigua: "This instrument is the invention of, and was brought here by the African Negroes...."

However, Africa is a very large continent with an incredible diversity of musical cultures. Where, then, in Africa is the banjo's ancestral home? 

Throughout Sub-Sahara Africa, there are only two regions which have extant plucked lute traditions that predate first contact with Western Europe in the 15th century: Western Costal Africa (Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Mali, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Côte d'Ivore [Ivory Coast], Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon) and North Central Africa (Niger, Burkina Faso, and Chad). For the sake of expedience, I'll use the designation West Africa to refer these two regions.

Other major African sources of slaves for the New World were the western coastal lands just south of West Africa, referred to as Central Africa: Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Congo [The Democratic Republic of Congo], and Angola. Something like 23% of all slaves came from this region. However, the Central African countries have no indigenous traditions of plucked lutes-- at least, none that have survived to modern times.

It follows, then, that the African home region of the banjo must be West Africa

The many different types of West African plucked lutes can be divided into two distinct major limbs of the same family tree: griot lutes and folk/artisan lutes.

Griot lutes are instruments which are exclusive to specialist musicians of the griot castes, belonging to certain Islamized ethnic groups with similar rigid tripartite caste systems such as the Wolof, FulBe [Fula], Soninke, Sereer, Mandinka, Bamana [Bambara], and so on. Active griot lute traditions-- such as the Mande/Bamana ngoni, Wolof xalam (also halam, the "x" indicates a hard "ch" pronunciation as in Chanukah), Mandinka kontingo, FulBe/Tukulóor hoddu, and so-- on can be found primarily in the heartland of  Mali, Senegal, Gambia, and Guinea.

Conversely, folk/artisan lutes are instruments that are played by vernacular folk musicians and non-griot music and word artisans. I'd also include in the latter category the very rare cases of instruments played by griots which do not share the standard features of the griot class of lutes, such as the recently discovered gourd-bodied xalam gesere (Gambia).  

In the 1960s, many musicologists and writers speculated that the early gourd banjos must be descended from the lutes of the present-day griots. However, whereas the early banjos had gourd bodies, mostly round in shape, the typical griot lute has a narrow oblong body made of hollowed-out wood. And there are more major differences. Totally unlike the bridge of the banjo, the standard bridge of griot-type lutes is a fan-shaped wooden piece, which is inserted through a hole on the instrument's head to slide onto the pointy end of its stick neck. Furthermore, all types of early banjo were full-spike lutes-- the griot lutes are predominately semi-spike lutes.

New findings from recent research are offering us more likely candidates for the banjar's West African ancestors: The many different types of gourd-bodied folk/artisan lutes still found throughout West Africa today, such as the Jola akonting (Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau), Manjak bunchundo (Gambia, Guinea-Bissau), and the Gwari kaburu (Nigeria), to name but a few.

Other more distant African relatives of the early banjars are to be found above the Sahara in North Africa. Here too descendents of West African slaves play plucked lutes, like the Gnawa guinbri [sintir], and the Sudan Tunis gombri, all of which, according to tradition, were brought by their enslaved ancestors from their homelands below the Sahara.

 

 

The Fusion of African & European Influences

Several major features on the early gourd banjos of the New World differed dramatically from those found on their West African forbearers. The most significant difference was in how the strings were affixed to the early banjos' necks.

On all the myriad kinds of West African lute-type instruments-- fiddles (classified as bowed lutes) and harp-lutes (West African harps-- such as the Mandinka kora, the Jola furakaf, the Mandinka simbing, etc.-- which are similar in construction to their plucked lute cousins) as well as plucked lutes-- the strings are affixed to the given instrument's stick neck by means of rings made of leather or knotted cord. To tune the strings, the rings are slid into place and are held there by tension. 

Period depictions of the early gourd banjos clearly show that the strings on these lutes were affixed to wooden friction tuning pegs-- the same as on the violin, the early guitar, and other European lute-type instruments, as well as on most kinds of lutes found the world over. We can also see this on the two oldest examples of the early New World banjo: The Creole Bania (upper left), collected in the northern South American country Suriname (formerly Dutch Guiana) by John Gabriel Stedman in the 1770s; and the Banza (immediate left), collected in Haiti by Victor Schœlcher during his 1840-41 sojourn through the Caribbean.

The use of wooden friction tuning pegs-- taken with other features not found on West African lutes, such as a distinct peghead and a wider flattened neck-- are evidence of the infusion of additional influences in the creation of the first New World banjos. The historical record shows that the European fiddle [violin] was played by enslaved African musicians from the beginning of slavery in the New World colonies. It was, in fact, the principal string instrument used in the development of the various musical cultures of the African Diaspora found throughout the New World, with the early banjos coming in a close second. Taking this into consideration, the European fiddle might well have been an inspiration for the use of wooden friction pegs, set in a distinct peghead, on the early banjos.

Another probable source for the adoption of peg tuners were early Iberian plucked lutes, such as the Spanish vihuela and the Portuguese cavaco, as well as the small guitar-type Spanish tiple and Portuguese cavaquinho. These instruments were present in the Iberian powers' colonies in Latin America and the Caribbean at the same time as the first arrival of slaves from Africa. They would eventually evolve into the many different kinds of Latin American and Caribbean regional folk lutes we know today, such as the tiple, cavaquinho, requinto, charango, cuatro, and so on.      

 

The Search for African Archetypes

The quest for the banjo's African ancestors may well have begun with the intriguing puzzle of the origin of the instrument's various different names over the centuries.

A case in point is the term bania. Our only reference to this term in the banjo's historical record is its use by John Gabriel Stedman to describe the early gourd banjo that he collected in Suriname in the 1770s.

Apparently, there was a gourd-bodied folk lute called bania that was once found in present-day Senegal and Gambia. George C. Dobson (1842-90)-- a prominent concert banjoist and banjo teacher who was the third of the five famous Dobson brothers, all leading figures of the emerging concert banjo scene in the 1870s and 1880s-- was well aware of the instrument. In his Complete Instructor for the Banjo with an Authentic History of the Instrument (1880), Dobson refers to it as the last item on his list of banjo-related string instruments known in Africa: "And in Senegambia, the bania, which it is sometimes claimed was imported to the United States by the negro slaves, and became the banjo." 

European and American scholars and writers continued to make reference to the bania well into the late 20th century. The eminent German ethnomusicologist/organologist Curt Sachs (1881-1959) described it as a 3-string lute with a "piriform" [pear-shaped] gourd body from Senegal in Reallexikon der Musikinstrumente (Berlin, 1913).

Yet, American ethnomusicologist Michael Coolen's investigations in Senegambia in the 1970s yielded not a single trace of the bania nor anyone who had even heard of it. Curiously enough, Coolen was more successful in his inquiries on the early West Indian term banshaw. He did find one informant who was acquainted with the word: "Abdulai Ndiaye of Dakar, Senegal, is a master builder of xalams, and he stated that the term banshaw is an old term used by the Wolof to refer to non-Wolof guitar-like instruments. Insisting that the term is a non-Wolof word, Ndiaye stated that it is a European word which has essentially disappeared from common use, replaced by the term guitar."


Banza: A Central African Connection?

Banza has also excited a great deal of speculation over the years. The prevalent theory contends that the word banza is derived from m'banza, a term for "string instrument" in the language of the Kimbundu-- also known as the North Mbundu-- the second largest ethnic group in Angola

After a great deal of research, I have not found a single reference to bear this out... aside from a host of articles repeating this conjecture with no further elaboration or evidence to back up this claim. However, what I did find was that m'banza is an old term for town amongst the various peoples of Angola and Congo. By way of example, Mbanza Congo in northern Angola was the capitol of the Bakongo Kingdom of Kongo, which was founded in the 14th century. The Kongo Kingdom lasted until 1665, when King Manikongo Garcia II, who had allied himself with the Dutch twenty four years earlier, was defeated by the Portuguese. The Kimbundu people were subjects of the Ndongo Kingdom, due south of Kongo, which was in northern Angola.

It's important to remember that the Portuguese began to colonize Angola in 1483 and established the country's present-day capitol Luanda 92 years later for two main reasons: a) to create a base for its slave trade operations in Central Africa, and b) to serve as a primary source of slaves, especially during the last days of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

As for the term banza itself, I have found no sources indicating its connection to a West African or Central African musical instrument. All I was able to dig up was the fact that banza, like m'banza, is a reference to "village."  In his book Two Trips to Gorilla Land and the Cataracts of the Congo (1875), the celebrated British explorer/linguist Sir Richard F. Burton (1821-1890) pointed out that the word "banza" is used by the various Bantu peoples of the Congo to refer to a "big village."

As stated earlier, there are no known traditions of plucked lutes in present-day Central Africa. Yes, there are string instrument traditions: mainly, that of bowed lutes -- the many different kinds of fiddles one finds throughout the region, like the Lari nsambi (Democratic Republic of Congo)-- as well as small harps, musical bows, and pluriarcs-- that is, instruments made up of several musical bows mounted in a single resonating body.

That said, could it be that an Angolan and/or Congolese plucked lute, called a banza, may have existed in the 17th and/or 18th centuries, but subsequently fell into obsolescence and eventually became extinct?

Again, banza is a common Bantu term for "big village." Could it be that the lute I'm suggesting was dubbed with this term to reflect the fact that it developed and was played in larger villages that had more contact with the Portuguese and their string instruments, such as the cavaco, cavaquinho [machete] and rabequinha ["little fiddle"], the most probable sources of inspiration for the hypothetical banza?  

If so, the Central African banza might have been similar in appearance and construction to the Khoikhoi [Hottentot] ramkie of South Africa (pictured on the left), which could trace its roots to the aforementioned Portuguese lutes-- albeit, in a more circuitous lineage. The early ramkie was documented in the 18th century by O. F. Mentzel, who, in the journal of his 1733-1741stay in the Dutch East India Company's colony on the Cape, described the lute "as an imitated instrument which the slaves of Malabar [Portuguese India] brought with them, from whom some Hottentots [Khoikhoi] copied it." Other accounts give more detailed descriptions of the instrument indicating that the early ramkie was a gourd-bodied lute with a sheep-skin head and a fretless flat stick neck that had three strings affixed to wooden friction tuning pegs. 

Some scholars have suggested the Khoikhoi ramkie itself may have been a source for the New World gourd banjos. However, this is highly improbable as the historical record makes it pretty clear that South Africa was in no way whatsoever a source of slaves for the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Slavery and a slave trade did exist in South Africa from the earliest period of Dutch colonization in the 17th century on. However, it mostly revolved around the importation of slaves into the nascent Dutch colony from India, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia, as well as from Madagascar and the Indian Ocean Islands of Bazaruto, Benguerra, and Inhaca off the coast of Mozambique.

To return again to the issue of whether or not there was a Central African plucked lute called a banza, I have to stress that there is no evidence in either the historical record or in the documentation of the various ethnic musical cultures of the region to indicate that such an instrument ever existed. The comments above are all pure conjecture on my part. That said, I do feel that greater research must be done into the question of a Central African "missing link" as so many slaves in the Americas and Caribbean came from this region. This is especially true of those that ended up in the French and Spanish colonies where the New World banza emerged.

 

-- Shlomo Pestcoe

 

 

Illustration Credits:

  • The Old Plantation (Detail). Anonymous folk painting, South Carolina, circa 1790. The oldest depiction of an early gourd banjo in North America. (The Abbey Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center, Williamsburg, VA)

  • Creole Bania, collected in Suriname in the 1770s. The oldest extant example of an early gourd-bodied banjo. (Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde [National Museum of Ethnology], Leiden, Holland).

  • Manjak bunchundo master Francis Mendy. Banjul, Gambia, 2004 (Photo by Ulf Jägfors)

  • Unidentified Gourd-Bodied Lute, Mali, circa late 19th century. (Musical Instrument Museum, Brussels, Belgium)

  • Banza. Haiti, circa 1840. (Musical Instrument Museum, Brussels, Belgium) (Photo by Ulf Jägfors)

  • A drawing by Charles Bell depicting a Khoikhoi [Hottentot] woman playing an early ramkie. South Africa, 1834. (Museum Africa, Johannesburg, South Africa)

  • Banjar player accompanying a jig dancer dancing on a "shingle." circa 1815 (Collection of Roddy &  Sally Moore of Ferrum, VA)

 

Next: West African Lutes in a Nutshell

 

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* Banjo Roots: Banjo Beginnings *

* Banjo Roots: West Africa *

* The Ekonting: A Link to the Banjo's West African Heritage *

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Last modified: 02/01/09