Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo



(With an appearance by own own Mr. Greg Adams, I might add!)

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Awesome!  I heared that this morning while driving my semi.

From the video description:

"Esa Jarju is an African Ekonting player (one of the ancestors of the Banjo). In this video the American Banjo is taken back to its home in West Africa and, amazingly, Esa Jarju has no problem at all playing it right away, even though it's his first time."


Just something to think about re: the origins of the banjo.--

I was stationed on the island of Okinawa for 18 months during the Viet Nam War.  I lived-off base in a private residence in the village of Futemna.  My next door neighbor played a musical instrument called the samisen (pronounced shamisen) every night after dinner while his family sang with him.  The samisen is now a traditional Japanese instrument, but originated 600 years ago in Okinawa (Okinawa is not Japanese culturally or racially).  There is a continuous tradition of samisen music from 1400 to the present.

A samisen is a 3 string banjo which looks, sounds, and plays like a banjo.  In Okinawa the samisen has a snakeskin head, while in Japan the heads are made of dog or cat skin.  They are both played with a plectrum.  There are umpteen traditional musical genres for the samisen including Kabuki theater.

So in this time of multiculturism and parallel universes, when discussing the origins of the banjo, one must specify which banjo.  Listening to that man play the samisen as the sun set remains one of the most magical experiences of my life.   As I recently quoted Joe Ayers, music truly is a universal language.


Personally, I feel the banjo was an already existing African instrument that was brought here, was unlike anything else that was here, and has slowly evolved and changed since then.  The problem with saying it was 'invented' here in America is that there is no distinct cutoff moment when the gourd instruments played by slaves became the familiar minstrel or factory banjos played by whites.  Rather, the evolution and changes to the slaves' 'banjar' were varied, subtle, and geographically widespread here in America. 

Must have been hundreds of home made instruments during slavery times that we today might be hard put to classify as either an African or American instrument.  When gourds were unavailable, other materials at hand were used by slaves to make their banjars/banzas, whatever they called them.  When did these instruments technically stop being African instruments- because they were made here in America?  Because they had bent wood pots rather than gourds?  Because they had more strings, or a wider fingerboard?  It's all interesting.   :)


Much the same debate is involved when discussing the Appalachian dulcimer, which can be clearly traced to it's several direct ancestors in Germany, Sweden, France, and Norway.  Those immigrants continued making hummles, epinettes, and scheitholts here even after they arrived in America.  But the American mountain dulcimer jumped into a clear distinct path quite different from its instrument ancestors when it was given a raised fingerboard located in the middle of the soundboard rather than to one side.  This put it into a whole new instrument classification.


I see the instrument as a blend of western and African technology. I would consider it a banjo when a western neck and tuning pegs find their way on to the instument.  At that point it ceases to be a purely African instrument.  From the best that we can tell, this more than likely happened in the Carribean, and then found its way here.  Just like American music, the instrument comes from a melting pot of musical ideas.

Dan'l--OK.  I figured somebody would bring this up.  This is pretty much my point. There are plucked membranophone instruments all over the world, not just in Africa, the the Carribean, and North America.  They all have their own unique cultural and societal significance.  Yes, the American banjo is unique and important, but not all that unique and different.  For example when you talk about "America's instrument", to  Which instrument are you referring?

Is it the gourd banjo, the cheese hoop, the classic banjo, the tenor banjo, the banjo uke, the banjo mandolin, the guitar banjo, the six string banjo, the pony banjo, the banjorine, the blugrass banjo, fretless, fretted?  Of course it depends on the time period and location.  The American banjo does not seem to have yet reached a final form.  One hopes it never will.

Before I lived in the Far East I had only a very vague, if any, knowledge of banjo-like instruments anywhere else in the world other than the USA.  Two things impacted me about my experiences on Okinawa, the first being that these instruments and the music played on them existed.  The second realization was that the indiginous people there, who had almost nothing in terms of material posessions, had this rich musical  heritage that was seamlessly interwoven with their lives.  These were not musical performances meant for an audience.  These were family traditions I was privileged to witness simply because I was a neighbor.  They reminded me of my Uncle George who my family thought was crazy because he played music "for no reason at all." 

I do agree with your point, by the way.--Rob

Dan'l said:

Rob, I respectfully disagree 100 percent with your statement: "when discussing the origins of the banjo, one must specify which banjo."  My long explanation below.



- - - - - -

I understand the appeal of shirtsleeve definitions, but in this case I feel it's counterproductive because it tends to blur the careful and cooperative work done in tracing and defining our instrument.


The Samisen was never called a banjo by the people that developed and used it (yes?).  They already have a perfectly good, pronouncible name for their instrument, so why replace with a Westernised term?  That only confuses the truth that the first banjo in Vietnam was an import.


The word banjo, like the instrument it represents, was finalized in spelling and meaning in America where the word came into popular use. The word banjo refers to the instrument finalized in America.  If you must note a connection, the Samisen is a stringed lute, correctly sharing that term for the banjo -- in the ranks of many stringed lute types from various countries around the world.


Music may be a universal language, but languages are not universal.  To casually hybridize terms across languages and cultures serves no purpose for meaningful discourse and common understanding.


Dan'l said:

There certainly is a continuum of membrane lute types over time.  But none of those were called banjo nor did they have the collective characteristics of a banjo.  It was blacks in the Americas, not Africa, that deserve the credit for originating major improvements over ancestral instruments with the addition of flat fingerboards and more versatile modal string tunings.



Dan'l, we cannot be so sure about the instrument's name being 'invented' here in America:
The slave trade brought the instrument to the Americas. The earliest reference from 1678 mentions a "banza" in Martinique. From this point forward there is consistent reference to the instrument in historical documents. In 1781 Thomas Jefferson writes: "The instrument proper to the [slaves] is the Banjar, which they brought hither from Africa."

Dan'l writes:

Nothing was stopping those things from happening in Africa, but it didn't happen. Those prior instruments were mature forms for milleniums.  So yes, invention is the proper term for what occurred in the Americas, a new thing developed within people's lifetimes.


Actually I imagine it pretty unlikely that ' those prior instruments were mature forms for milleniums'.  Anything that creative craftmen and musicians make by hand very typically undergoes design changes from one maker or one generation to the next. We cannot possibly say that African craftsmen were not trying out new materials and designs on a regular basis.  Why wouldn't they, just like everyone else does?

That minor point aside though,....I see the development of the banjo as an evolution of something that already existed in a more organic form, rather than as an invention of something brand new.  The term invention to me implies that it was created from nothing as a completely new thing.


I can't help but add that I don't necessarily see the addition of  hoops, mechanical tuners, frets, resonators, etc, as clearly being 'improvements'.  Changes and innovations yes, but just like the automobile or the zipper, one man's improvement is another man's lamented loss.   ;)

I side with Dan'l on this one- but I'm a gonna stay out of it cause it is way over my head.



It's interesting that Greg has stayed on the sidelines here, perhaps he's waiting for the wind to die down.

The uninitiated don't discern anything anyway ...once they do they are no longer uninitiated.   O the irony!   lol

I think anyone interested in banjo origins will quickly get a general accurate idea after a small bit of reading.


A lot of this is simply seeing the same things from different viewpoints and through slightly different lenses, combined with a certain amount of word juggling.


I tell people that the banjo was originally an instrument brought here by slaves from Africa, which then evolved to its present day form.  That seems like a good practical description for folks who come up to me during a gig and ask me about where banjos came from.  I can't really tell them to go read Gura & Bollman.    ;)

I would disagree with one part of your statement.  The Banjo was not brought here from Africa.  Maybe from the Carribean.  The important point is that it evolved  here, which is why it is an American, not an African instrument.


Here is a slide from a talk I gave earlier this year.


Early Banjo Names

Outside the USA
Strump-Strump (Jamaica 1687)
Bangil (Barbados 1708)
Strum-Strum (Jamaica 1740)
Banshaw (St. Kitts 1763)
Creole Bania (Suriname 1773-1777)
Banjay (Barbados 1784)
Banjar (Barbados 1796)
Banza (Carribean 1810)
Bonjaw (Jamaica 1923)

In the USA
Banger (NY 1736)
Banjar (Thomas Jefferson 1781)
Banjo (Nicholas Cresswell 1774)

I hear what you are saying John, but why are we assuming the banjo did no evolving and 're-inventioning' in Africa before it was brought here?  Do changes to the instrument only count if they occurred here?  I tend to view it (similarly to the way I view folk or traditional music) more as a continuous line of varied evolution and influence that likely goes back hundreds of years, rather than the instrument suddenly being 'born' and having a life only once it was brought here.  This issue can be seen through different lenses, and it's been debated often enough.

And of course 'the origins of the banjo' does not necessarily mean the same thing as 'the birth of the banjo'.


Perhaps it would be helpful if we agree upon a specific definition of 'banjo'- a detailed description of what a 'banjo' is might clarify the discussion for all of us.  Then we could perhaps agree on when the banjo was 'invented'.

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