David G. Hyatt
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The (almost) definitive history of gourd banjos

We are pleased to be able to publish George R. Gibson's Gourd Banjos: From Africa To The Appalachians as our special 8-part historical feature.

Gourd Banjos: From Africa To The Appalachians
by George R. Gibson

Part 1: African Gourd Instruments

Musical instruments made from gourds have been found in many cultures. Early travelers in Africa described various gourd instruments. Richard Jobson documented his travels up the Gambia in 1620-21 in The Golden Trade. He found a variety of cultures, some heavily influenced by Muslim invaders. He observed the following:

"There is, without doubt, no people on the earth more naturally affected to the sound of musicke then these people They have little varietie of instruments, that which is most common in use, is made of a great gourd, and a necke thereunto fastned, resembling, in some sort, our Bandora; but they have no manner of fret, and the strings they are either such as the place yeeldes, or their invention can attaine to make, being very unapt to yeeld a sweete and musicall sound, notwithstanding with pinnes they winde and bring to agree in tunable notes, having not above six strings upon their greatest instrument "

Eileen Southern, in Readings in Black American Music, quotes Thomas Edward Bowdich, who traveled to Africa in 1819:

"The Mosees, Mallowas, Bournous and natives from the more remote parts of the interior, play on a rude violin: the body is a calabash, the top is covered with deer skin, and two large holes are cut in it for the sound to escape; the strings, or rather one string, is composed of cow's hair, and broad like that of the bow with which they play, which resembles the bow of a violin."

The most interesting instrument found in recent years is the Akonting, still in use by the Jola tribe in Gambia. It is a banjo-like gourd instrument with three strings, two longer and one short, which is played in a down stroke style similar to that used in the mountains. Daniel Jatta and Ulf Jagfors demonstrated this instrument at a banjo collector meeting in November 2000. It is likely that some early slaves in the Chesapeake area came originally from Gambia.

Next, Part 2: Gourd Banjos in the West Indies >>