Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Hi, all. I'm brand new to this site, so if this is not the appropriate way to communicate to members, please forgive me. 

I played a little modern bluegrass banjo many years ago, and recently have been building gourd banjos. Being able to actual play the things would be great lol. 

Can anyone point me in the direction learning resources, sheet music, arrangements, and perhaps tips to arranging old tunes, as well. I figured out pretty quickly that the bluegrass 3 finger picking style won't get me far here. 

Thanks everyone, and any assistance would be gratefully received. 

Dane Donato

PS If I am doing this right, here is a pic of a recent banjo along with my own ugly mug. Still a few tiny bugs to work out, but overall, very happy with the sound of the instrument. 

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Wow,, as a brand new learner Boucher player who has played mountain dulcimer for a couple of years I find the history of my new instrument amazing.

Now, Dan'l...

Bowed lutes were INVENTED by Asians!  All the evidence points to the Mongols (who had access to all the stuff you needed to make a bowed lute), who spread the technology throughout their empire, and that's how it got to the Middle East, and from there through North Africa and into West Africa in one direction and to Europe through Mediterranean trade routes and the Crusades in another.  Just as with plucked skin-headed lutes, which seem to have their start in the Middle East and spread around from there a thousand or so years before the Mongols and their marin-huurs.  Europeans, significantly, began making their bowed lutes with wooden tops, just as they had borrowed the plcuked wooden-topped "lutes" (from the Arabic "al 'ud", or "the wooden thing") from the Middle East.  

The point, then, isn't uniqueness, it's the specific historical context for these instruments getting in the hands of West Africans who came to the Americas.  Skin-headed stringed instrument technology, whether bowed or plucked, did not arrive in the Americas from Western Europe (where it didn't exist), it came from West Africa.  There are no skin-headed lutes in Western Europe until the banjo is introduced from America.  period.  Yes, there's the shamisen in Japan and the Afghan rubab, but. those. people. did. not. come. here. before. 1850.  West Africans did, and they adapted their playing techniques from West African bowed lutes to the European violin and it worked great for delivering European dance music.  That was the point I was making about West African influence on fiddle tune bowings in American traditional music.  Minstrels also created a brew of European and African musical influences, but there is no doubt that African-Americans did it first. 

Playing plucked lutes with the back of the finger and the thumb on a short string at the top of the neck did not arrive from Europe, it was developed in West Africa and brought here, as you mention.  Not just the technique, but also basic features of the banjo found, for example, on the ekonting (and the ngoni, and the...), including the skin head, fretless neck, and short thumb string.  Apparently the current theoretical model is that it all came together in the Caribbean with an instrument we would recognize as a banjo.  As for contributing to the development of minstrel performance practice, it is evident that the early minstrels had some knowledge and exposure to the ways African-Americans played banjo and fiddle, but they creatively applied their own conceptual framework for melody-driven European dance music, and over time moved away from the pattern-driven, rhythmically-complex African-American music with lots of improvisation, and mainstream popular American music would not see the return of these influences until ragtime, blues, and jazz. 

Dan'l said:

Before going too far off topic,

Too late.     :)

Can anyone point me in the direction learning resources, sheet music, arrangements, and perhaps tips to arranging old tunes, as well. I figured out pretty quickly that the bluegrass 3 finger picking style won't get me far here. 

Thanks everyone, and any assistance would be gratefully received.

We have crossed the line. No worries, a topic that doesn't wander is suspect. :)


Dan'l said:

Paul - Despite what the learned scholars have told us about the uniqeness of certain West Afican skinned lute types, they are not all that unique compared to instruments from other heritage locations in the world.

Nobody is saying that skinned lutes are 'unique' to West Africa, (and how many times do people have to say that??) Paul was saying that it was the West Africans who were being brought here (against their will) en masse at the time, along with their musical culture.  Not Asians, nor Egyptians, nor Mongolians etc..  There were almost certainly no skinned lutes here until the slaves arrived with their musical cultures which strongly included skinned lutes.

      As for classifying the round stick necks of those West African types as "fretless necks" that's a stretch if you actually look at what a fretless neck on an early banjo looks like - flat, not round.  Some of those West African supposed proto-banjos have strings tied in position.  Classifying those fretless is a bit disingenous.

That's silly.  A lute with a round 'stick' against which you fret one or more strings to produce various notes- the 'stick' as you call it is then the lute's NECK.  A lute is defined as having a neck, and in these cases the 'stick' is the neck which helps define these WAfrican instruments as lutes as opposed to a harp or a drum.  A lute without tuning pegs is still a lute.  A harp has strings that do not run over a sound chamber and get fretted on a neck.  An African kora is a harp, and akonting is a lute.  Would one also not call them lutes because the skin could not be considered a 'soundboard' ?- of course not. 

       The connection between West African instruments and the first banjos is not particularly strong, in my opinion. It's more of a supposition based mostly on current versions of West African instruments. The real gift of West Africa was not so much instrument technology but rather playing technique, IMHO.  I accept that others buy into the conclusions of the learned scholars about West African supposed proto banjos, but I've got eyes.

Well I've got an ass and at least I know the the difference between it and my elbow.   :D

"buy into"- that's a good one!   I think the holocaust deniers have taken it already though.   We mustn't 'buy into' all this garbage that 'learned' people have researched, for sure!  Far better to make our conclusions based on appearances and our personal opinions.

Sorry, I must be having a bad ass day.   

Have axe, will grind.

Play nice, kids. 

Thank you for posting that, Greg.  I wasn't around on this site when that first surfaced, but that is clear and concise.  Good to know I can just copy that link for a response in the future.  Do you know if anyone has published on the influence of one-stringed West African fiddles and their performance practice on African-American fiddling? 

Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje has done a good bit of pioneering research on West African fiddling traditions and I believe she is working on a project focused on African-American fiddling and potential correlations with Africa and maybe the Caribbean. 

Also, the statement that Shlomo and I put together, which I posted here, is currently expanded into a 21-page essay that will be included in Bob Winans' forthcoming UIP book about recent banjo research. 

Thank you,

Greg


Paul Ely Smith said:

Thank you for posting that, Greg.  I wasn't around on this site when that first surfaced, but that is clear and concise.  Good to know I can just copy that link for a response in the future.  Do you know if anyone has published on the influence of one-stringed West African fiddles and their performance practice on African-American fiddling? 

Thanks, Greg, for re-posting that banjo-roots-research page.  I'm firmly in the "out of Africa" camp, based on virtually all of the early (17th-18th century) accounts unearthed thus far.  Moreover, I think it's fair to say that the banjo/banza was exclusively the province of enslaved Africans until the 1830s when Joe Sweeney and maybe a couple of others appropriated the instrument as a way to enhance the "authenticity" of their theatrical representations of "genuine" plantation life--therefore "improving" on the banjo-less performances of earlier blackface performers like Thomas Rice.  This is not to say that Sweeney and later white banjo players didn't come to appreciate the instrument on its own merits.   They certainly did.  But they also began almost immediately adapting the instrument to accommodate their own ideas about "genuine" plantation music--which, I would guess, was a far cry from what African American musicians were actually playing in the 1830s and 1840s.  

For me, this threaded discussion actually raised a couple of new issues.  First, there seems to be an emerging consensus, based on 17th century accounts, that the banjo first appeared in the Caribbean region and later "diffused" to other parts of the Americas.   This may or may not be true.   The recent exhibit in Baltimore highlights a cluster of "banjo sightings" in Maryland in the 18th century.   Could it be that the instrument made its way to the Mid-Atlantic region without the Caribbean connection?   Well, there may be a way to find out by tracing the routes of slave ships to the Carolinas and up the coast.   A new database should help.   See:  http://www.slavevoyages.org/tast/index.faces   

My second observation is that maybe (as Paul Ely Smith points out) we should also be looking at the concurrent appearance of African bowed instruments (and maybe cane flutes) in the Americas, instead of just focusing on banjos.  It may well be that banjos were only a part of a larger complex of early African American music.  It would be a shame to miss the forest for the trees.  

 

           

However, I do have a couple of questions/observations 

http://www.slavevoyages.org/tast/index.faces

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