Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo



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

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When you look at native west African lutes, for the most part, what you see is that the necks are round.  This includes the Akonting, the Bunchundo, and the Kaburu, all which could be potentially considered as banjo ancestors.  This is why I consider the banjo to start when a western style lute neck appears on the gourd, rather than the round neck commonly found in African instruments.  Even though these changes were made by people dislocated from Africa, the changes would not probably have been made without western influence.  That is why I stated that I consider the banjo to be an instrument with a flat fingerboard, and peg tuners.  It is a hybrid of African and European musical technology/tradition.  The first evidence of this is in the carribean, the Creole Bania (1770) as an example.

Carl Anderton said:

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


I didn’t realize that I was on a sideline here. I thought my voice was heard in the NPR story (lol). If you are asking for my opinion and feedback on things, I can add the following (hopefully without going too far, being preachy, or condescending in the process):


Regarding the NPR story, we have to remember that the story was crafted for a non-specialist national audience, for whom the idea that the banjo has an African heritage is still a relatively new concept. Overall, I think Greg Allen did an excellent job, considering that he is one of the few journalists who’s tried to scratch the surface about one of the many key issues that more people should care about when it comes to banjo history and how we think it relates to West African plucked lute traditions. I am personally waiting for a national story that does more to challenge listeners into exploring banjo history in relation to cultural trauma from the dawn of the transatlantic slave trade into the Civil War, through the Civil Rights movement, and what our cultural memories mean today in the 21st century. A story like this would require people to come out of their comfort zones, which is not something most people are willing to necessarily do or know how to do. It means having to engage issues race, slavery, appropriation, and exploitation, as well as our own potential complicity in maintaining the erasure of the banjo’s shared, vital multicultural heritage.


Dan’l is right to be defensive in his posts because more is at stake than just calling the banjo a “slave instrument brought from Africa” and calling another instrument a banjo when it is not. For example, the ekonting is not an “African banjo.” It is an ekonting with its own cultural contexts, repertoire, playing technique, and use. It is not some statically maintained African cultural implement waiting to be discovered by outsiders and presented as an unchanged, isolated, and primitive African specimen, to be sidelined as a proto-version of “America’s instrument.” The reality is that the ekonting has been consistently overlooked (as well as other similarly constructed plucked lutes), since at least the 1960s, as scholars began comparing the banjo to what little was known of West African plucked lute traditions by cultural outsiders. The reason anything is happening with the ekonting (including Bela Fleck’s presentation of the instrument in Throw Down Your Heart) is because of Daniel Jatta and his willingness to collaborate with Ulf Jägfors and other members of the American and European banjo communities since 2000. In the grand scheme of things, the NPR story was one small gesture in setting the record straight. Having had the chance to personally and intensively study the ekonting (in Africa in 2006 and 2008) and the ngoni (here in the United States with Cheick Hamala Diabate), they are incredibly difficult instruments to master, let a lone develop any level of proficiency on (which I have only marginally done as a student of both traditions), especially as it relates to understanding the cultural contexts in which they were used not only in the past, but today. If the researcher paper trail points to over 60 culturally distinct plucked lute traditions, that means we’ve barely accounted for (at least I’ve barely accounted for) two of these traditions. As outsiders, our comparisons between West African living traditions and the banjo’s historical record in the America’s are grossly incomplete. This is why we need to be more systematic in our considerations of West African plucked lute traditions. In fact, we need similar efforts with our understanding of Caribbean living traditions as well.


In general, I agree with Dan’l’s desire to provide clarifying responses on this thread, but I don’t think it goes far enough. One of the things I think we are missing in our discussions is a self-interrogation of our own complicity in how we engage and disseminate content—let’s face it, we are exploring early blackface minstrelsy on this site. As multifaceted as early minstrelsy was, especially with its links to vernacular multiculturalism (between, for example, African Americans and Irish immigrants), it is a direct reflection of America’s persistent racist social structures. In order to have more open discussions on this topic, people have to be willing to acknowledge these historical realities. It is very, very difficult to present, which is why we need to do it in equitable ways. This is why, for example, I wanted to contribute the first introductory video on the resources page of this site.


As we seek connections to the past, incorporate them into our skill sets, and then disseminate them through our presentations, performances, and web-based outputs, we cannot expect one another to present exhaustive information in any context (and not everyone is a scholar who is trained to authoritatively present materials in every context). So what is our responsibility? I can’t give exact answers, but I can offer suggestions. As alluded to in other posts, I think that we should always be asking ourselves the following minimal questions when it comes to historical references to the banjo, its West African heritage, and its development in the Americas:

1)    What is the plucked lute being referenced?

2)    Where is it being played?

3)    By whom and under what conditions?

4)    How does this evidence relate to my experiences and knowledge?

5)    How do we equitably communicate information about this evidence and our experiences with our audiences, the general public, or in the classroom?


For me, to call the banjo “American” vs. “African” still keeps us disconnected from deeper issues about how we represent our own involvement with the instrument. This brings me back to the NPR story…. Of the hours Greg Allen spent talking to Daniel Jatta and Chuck Levy (in Florida) and me (here in Washington, DC), the story (to me) tried to emphasize at least two things. First, that Daniel Jatta’s story is unique in that Daniel made his own connections between the banjo and the instrument played within his community and has dedicated his life to trying to do something about it (especially as it relates to doing something tangible in preserving the ekonting tradition in the Senegambian region). Second, that those of us in the United States who care about banjo history have the chance to diversify our learning opportunities about the greater-than-60 documented plucked lute traditions that currently exist (or recently existed) throughout West Africa. This is the region where our current understanding of historical evidence suggests the banjo’s American development would have originated based on the traditions maintained by Africans there who became enslaved as part of the perpetual holocaust that was the transatlantic slave trade. It can no longer be treated as an either/or between the ekonting and the ngoni/xalam. To try to draw conclusions on such little evidence is counterproductive.


To this end, I am posting here, in its entirety, the mission statement that Shlomo Pestcoe and I wrote for the banjo roots research presentation I gave at the 2010 Black Banjo Gathering at Appalachian State University:


Banjo Roots Research Initiatives Mission Statement 2010

by Banjo Roots on Tuesday, January 25, 2011 at 12:59am


What follows is the formal mission statement that Shlomo Pestcoe and Greg C. Adams wrote and circulated in 2010 for their unique collaborative partnership, Banjo Roots Research Initiatives (BRRI). BRRI was formed two years earlier to further banjo roots research as a scholarly discipline and to disseminate and popularize the latest findings of that research through proactive public outreach in innovative and exciting new ways.


While reflecting both academic and non-academic scholarship since the 1970s, the findings presented here are largely based on new research performed in recent years. Our hope is that this will attract other researchers to more deeply engage in banjo-focused lines of inquiry and systematic research, thereby, furthering and expanding knowledge and understanding of the early history and development of the banjo and its African American and multicultural origins. Furthermore, we hope that it will serve as a springboard for broader-based dialogical discussion and debate, informed by variegated problem-posing approaches, so as to demythologize and clarify issues surrounding the banjo’s emergence in the early African Diaspora of the New World during slavery and its West African heritage.


Our thanks and appreciation to Robert Winans for his editorial guidance and Ed Britt, Kerry Blech, Tony Thomas, and Laurent Dubois for their feedback in our preparation of this statement.


BANJO ROOTS RESEARCH  is the empirical study of early banjo history (ca. 1620-1870), its origins in the African Diaspora of the Americas, and its deep roots in West Africa, the wellspring of the banjo’s African heritage. Combining multidisciplined, multifaceted investigations of the historical record with crosscultural comparative explorations of living traditions, banjo roots research is part and parcel of the broader spectrum of banjo studies: banjology.


In addition to tracing the “banjo genome” through its various “genetic markers,” we study the people who created and played these early instruments, the historic conditions and sociocultural matrices that resulted in their production, and their original performance contexts. A key element of this initiative is increasing knowledge of the many plucked spike lutes still found throughout West Africa today—over sixty culturally distinct traditions. The scholarly infrastructure of our work is founded on modern ethno-organology, the study of music instruments in culture. This is a fusion of ethnomusicology (the study of music as culture, or, as Jeff Todd Titon calls it, “the study of people making music” [1])  and organology (the study of the historical development, classification, technology, and use of instruments).


Born in the harsh crucible of slavery, the story of the banjo begins in the Caribbean Basin during the 17th century. At that time, reports first appear in the historical record of enslaved Africans and their descendants making and playing distinctive plucked spike lutes, which we now generally recognize as early gourd banjos. These instruments typically had 1) a drum-like body, made of gourd (Lagenaria siceraria) – or, on occasion, calabash (Crescentia cujete) – and topped with a taut animal hide soundtable; 2) a fretless ‘full-spike’ neck that extended the full length of the body to pass over or through its tail-end; and 3) a ‘floating’ (movable) bridge that sat on the soundtable to raise the strings. The best documented form of the early gourd banjo was a four-string instrument with three long strings and a top short “thumb string,” a feature that can be traced back to West Africa and which was passed down to its offspring, the wood-rimmed early 5-string banjo (ca. 1840-1880).


These lutes, exclusively attributed to black folk musicians, were known by a variety of names. For example:

                  Strum-strump (Jamaica, 1687, the first period account of early gourd banjos),

                  Bangil (Barbados, 1708; Jamaica, 1739 and 1740),

                  Banger (New York City, 1736, the earliest report of the banjo in North America),

                  Banjo (Pennsylvania, 1749; Maryland and Virginia, 1774; North Carolina, 1787),

                  Banza (French Antilles, 1765),

                  Creole Bania (Suriname, 1773-77), and others.


Recent findings of ongoing research show that the early gourd banjo, while fundamentally West African in its design, was not an exact replica of any known African instrument. Rather, it embodied a synthesis of structural features from several West African traditions with a few innovations most likely inspired by Western European and Iberian plucked lutes encountered in the Caribbean, such as the vihuela de mano, the Western lute, the guitar, the Spanish tiple, and the Portuguese cavaquinho. Instead of the sliding tuning rings used on all traditional West African spike lutes, the early gourd banjo had tuning pegs. In place of the typical West African round cylindrical stick neck, it had a flat fingerboard. Recognizing these distinctions, it is clear that the early gourd banjo was a folk instrument unique to the African Diaspora. As such, it was the product of creolization (also referred to as interculturation), the same innate “folk process” that combined diverse African and European influences and admixtures in a syncretic fusion to create all other forms and manifestations of early African American culture throughout the Americas.


In the United States, the banjo’s narrative continues with the early 5-string banjo, which grew out of professional blackface minstrel performances in the circus ring and on the popular theatre stage during the late 1830s and early 1840s. It was immediately exported to Britain, and, eventually, took its place on the world stage as a major popular instrument. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the development of the modern banjo family, which include the standard or regular 5-string banjo, the 4-string tenor banjo, the 4-string plectrum banjo, and banjo hybrids  (e.g. banjo-guitar, banjo-mandolin and banjo-ukulele). Today these instruments are most commonly associated with American genres of music, such as folk, bluegrass, country, blues, and jazz. Yet, the banjo, in all of its various forms, has long been heard in contemporary popular music worldwide. It appears in local regional idioms of traditional vernacular music that range from mento (Jamaica), parang (Carriacou), and quelbe (St. Croix and the Virgin Islands) to amarg souss (Morocco), ceili/ceilidh (Ireland/Scotland), and faikava (Pule'anga 'o Tonga [The Kingdom of Tonga]).



[1] Jeff Todd Titon,  Worlds of Music: An Introduction to the Music of the World's Peoples (Belmont, CA: Schirmer Cengage Learning, 2009), Preface, p. xviii.



Dan'l, thanks for further clarifying your points.  It does make sense to me.  I think wording has been part of the difficulty for me in this discussion.  Less so now.


If you are determined to make Africa the apocrophal source, than at least put it that: "Akontings and the like were traditional African instruments that were the basis for the evolution of the banjo in America."  Is there any downside to expressing it that way?


The downside is just that it's still too cerebral for most regl'r folk who ask me about where the banjo came from.  I like something more like "The banjo was developed from banjo-like instruments brought here to America by African slaves before the Civil War."  People can grasp a concept like that more easily while juggling their corn dog and beer.    :)

Greg, are you saying that as far as we now know, the very first banjos made here by slaves had flat fingerboards, and that (as far as we know) none of the African banjo-ancestors had flat fingerboards then?


Yes, the current evidence we have suggests that the application of flat fingerboards and tuning pegs are part of the Caribbean innovation of enslaved Africans and their descendants.


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