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

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

Part 2: Gourd Banjos in the West Indies

There are several early reports of banjos in the West Indies. The best single source for these is Dena Epstein's Sinful Tunes and Spirituals, Black Folk Music to the Civil War. She quotes from numerous sources:

"From Jamaica Sir Hans Sloane described an instrument he called the 'strum-strum,' which seems to have been closely related to the banza, judging from its picture … [he] wrote after his return to England in 1689: '… They have several sorts of Instruments in imitation of Lutes, made of small Gourds fitted with Necks, strung with Horse hairs, or the peeled stalks of climbing Plants or Withs. 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 …' "

"In March, 1784, Johann David Schoepf saw this same instrument [the instrument described by Thomas Jefferson] aboard a ship carrying slaves to market in Providence in the Bahamas: 'Another musical instrument of the true Negro is the Banjah. Over a hollow calabash (Cucerb lagenaria L.) is stretched a sheepskin, the instrument lengthened with a neck, strung with four strings, and made accordant … In America and on the Islands they make use of this instrument greatly for the dance. Their melodies are almost always the same, with little variation…' "

"A vitriolic attack on the slaves of the French colonies published in 1810 included their method of making banzas as an example of their barbarism: 'As to guitars, which the Negroes call banza, see what they consist of: they cut lengthwise through the middle of the calabash … This fruit is sometimes eight inches and more in diameter. They stretch upon it the skin of a goat which they adjust around the edges with little nails; they make two holes in this surface; then a piece of lath or flat wood makes the handle of the guitar; they then stretch three cords of pitre (a kind of hemp taken from the agave plant, vulgarly called pitre), and the instrument is finished. They play on this instrument tunes composed of three or four notes, which they repeat endlessly; this is what Bishop Gregoire calls sentimental and melancholy music; and what we call the music of savages.' "

Epstein provides some evidence that African musical instruments were transported along with the enslaved Africans. She quotes Bryan Edwards describing slaves aboard ship:

"In the intervals between their meals, they [the slaves] are encouraged to divert themselves with music and dancing; for which purpose such rude and uncouth instruments as are used in Africa, are collected before their departure …"

Sloane's description of instruments "in imitation of lutes" and his drawing illustrating these, which is reproduced in Sinful Tunes, describe two different construction techniques. He reports: "They have several sorts of instruments… made of small gourds …"; and then states: "These instruments are sometimes made of hollow'd timber…" The drawing (the original is in the Newberry Library) shows two instruments with similar necks and different bodies. The first instrument has a rounded body and appears to be a gourd. Peter Ross made an elegant gourd banjo from the drawing, which was exhibited in The Banjo in Virginia, produced by Ferrum College.

The second instrument shows a more elongated body, and may be a "hollow'd timber," or wood frame banjo. There is a wood banjo in the Smithsonian that some think may be the oldest extant American banjo. Stuart Jamieson donated this banjo to the Smithsonian after exhibiting it at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1984. Ring the Banjar!, by Robert Lloyd Webb, contains photos of banjos exhibited at MIT. Plates 1 and 23 show details of the Jamieson banjo, which somewhat resembles a gourd banjo Benjamin Henry Latrobe observed in New Orleans in 1819. Latrobe's drawing of the banjo he observed is also shown in Ring the Banjar!.

The oldest known gourd banjo in the world is in a Dutch museum. John Stedman found it in South America, probably in Surinam (formerly Dutch Guiana), in the 1770s. He wrote a book about his experiences, Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam. Stuart Jamieson, being on good terms with the director of the Rijksmuseum, helped convince the Dutch to send this banjo to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Banjo Exhibition in 1984. It was sent, according to Jamieson, "with a guard of Royal Dutch Marines." Plate 22 in Ring the Banjar! shows the Stedman banjo, and gives its dimensions. This banjo has four strings, three long and one short.

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