Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

I just had the most wonderful afternoon. I gave a presentation on the African and Caribbean roots of the banjo for a lecture series at the McKeesport, PA campus of Penn State University. It was part of a series of lectures focusing on the Caribbean and Latin America. Most of the people in the audience were not banjo players and were not necessarily interested in the banjo, yet the complexities and multicultural history of the banjo kept them all engaged. It was most satisfying being able to talk about the banjo's African roots, Caribbean birth and development, and North American transformation, covering nearly 400 years of history. I don't know about all of you, but I am very excited about sharing banjo history outside of our traditional music circles.

People are genuinely interested in this stuff. I am reading a book entitled " Senegambia and the Atlantic Slave Trade" by Baboucar Barry. Talking about his desire to see a more unified Senegambian region (Gambia, Senegal, Guinea Bissau, and parts of Mali, Mauritania, and Guinea Conakry), Barry highlights what he identifies as the fears people from this region of West Africa have when it comes to "evaluat[ing] the causes of conflicts that made our peoples clash against each other in the past." He goes on to say, "We dread knowledge of the mechanisms of our social and economic inequalities, the role of violence in our soiceties, our technological adaptations, the revolutions our societies have undergone. Above all, we have not had the nerve to contemplate the unending procession of our failed dreams."

One can't help but be compelled by the sentiment he offers. As I read this, I thought about how this might parallel some of the complexities of early banjo history and minstrelsy and the baggage that comes along with the genre. Then I read his next statement, "The time has come to shed our fear, to look at our history with open eyes. It is time for us to study with constant clarity all aspects of our variegated history, from the most glorious to the most abject". (all of this is on page xiii in the preface). I think these statements, especially the latter, effectively represent part of the rationale behind my work and my desire to see if broader appreciation for the complexities of banjo history can be realized on a larger scale and if I can be a proactive part of that process.

Enthusiastically yours,

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Awesome Greg. I will have a similar opportunity in Feburary when I make a presentation of historical banjo styles to the Society for the Preservation of Blue Grass Music in America (SPBGMA)...although my audience will be much more familiar with the Banjo!

I have been telling the history of the banjo (in storytelling format) at our monthly coffeehouse gigs and all the banjo minutae has gone over quite well.

Keep up the good work, your lectures are always interesting...I hope you got to play for them too!!

Thanks Marc! Good luck with your presentation. Definitely keep us posted as to how it turned out!

In my presentation, I included both live and recorded performances, I played on a modern banjo, a couple tunes on my Ashborn repro, a tune on gourd-bodied/boucher-necked hybrid, the ekonting (based on my field work in West Africa, 2006, 2008), and the ngoni (as I am now formally studying the ngoni as well). I also included a recording from Bob Winans' New World recording (Boatman), a cut from a Cheick Hamala Diabate CD, and one of my field videos of Remi Diatta from Mlomp, Casamance (Senegal) playing a tune on the ekonting. People responded well to all the music. It was really exciting.

Trapdoor2 said:
Awesome Greg. I will have a similar opportunity in Feburary when I make a presentation of historical banjo styles to the Society for the Preservation of Blue Grass Music in America (SPBGMA)...although my audience will be much more familiar with the Banjo!

I have been telling the history of the banjo (in storytelling format) at our monthly coffeehouse gigs and all the banjo minutae has gone over quite well.

Keep up the good work, your lectures are always interesting...I hope you got to play for them too!!

Great post, Greg. Wish I could have been there. This little genre is lucky to have you.
Figuring out what to share with the general public is, at times, challenging, considering how much information there is about the banjo and its history. For each of my audiences, I generally tailor the content to try to meet their information needs and what they are likely to know the least about, but that would improve their overall knowledge sets, building on what they already know.

It's exciting work.


There are a lot of clawhammer players today who would argue that the stroke style was replaced by guitar style. Certainly guitar style became more prevalent, but the stroke style is still around. Actually, I prefer the stroke style to guitar style.

I also take a little exception to your point d. What made the banjo and the genre of popular American music so unique was the blending of European and African styles. You can identify some songs as being more one way or the other, but it is the blending of styles that makes the music so wonderful. The same can be said for the instrument. What you see is a migration of European craftmanship into something with purely african roots. What is more interesting is that major innovations, the flat fingerboard, 5 strings, etc. were done at the hands of slaves/african descendents. America is a melting pot, and its music and instruments are no exception.
I wish I had more time to devote to online discussion.... This is a good discussion....

I agree with Dan'l and John that there needs to be different types of clarifications for audiences and we should ask ourselves, "what are we really talking about?" All of us are coming to know the early banjo with different approaches, knowledge, and backgrounds.

Regarding the constructs of the early banjo, I assume everyone on this list knows this, so if I'm being redundant, please excuse me. The two extant instruments from the Caribbean, both of which have flat fingerboards and tuning pegs and whose provenance is linked to African/African-American creators ("African-American" in the broadest use of the term) are 1) John Gabriel Stedman's "Creole bania" collected in the 1770s* (housed at the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde) and depicted in his book Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, from 1772 to 1777 (1796]) and 2) Victor Schoelcher's "banza" collected in Haiti circa 1840-1841, which is now in the Musée de la Musique, Cité de la Musique, Paris, France. What is striking about the "banza" is its structural resemblance to the illustration in Sir Hans Sloane's circa 1687 encounter and subsequent illustration in A Voyage to the Islands of Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christopher and Jamaica (1707). There are dozens of references to banjo-like instruments in the Caribbean and South/Central America. All of them offer varying degrees of information regarding construction, playing technique, and contextual use.

One way of looking at the development of the banjo is through a creolization process in the Caribbean. With my growing knowledge of West African plucked lutes (over 50 distinct traditions), I am coming to appreciate that the bulk of these instruments are constructed as follows: 1) bodies made of gourd, calabash, carved wood, or, sometimes, repurposed materials, 2) stick necks (naturally cylindrical) that are generally of a semi-spike or full-spike designation (semi-spike in that the neck terminates before reaching the other end of the body with the end of the neck visible through a hole in the head and carved to a point to accept a slip-on bridge or tanged in order to hold the ends of the strings; full-spike where the neck either pierces or rests on either side of the body and sitting just below the head), 3) bridges that are either slip-ons (resting on the end of the semi-spike necks) or "floating" (cylindrical or bi-ped bridges that are held on the head through the lateral tension of the strings), and 4) strings that are tied or knotted to a loop that terminate at varying lengths at different points of the neck.

Looking at depictions and extant instruments of banjo-like instruments from the Caribbean and comparing their attributes with what we know of West African plucked lutes (with the brief description offered above) and European plucked lutes, some of which are believed to have been present in the Caribbean, such as, for example, the vihuela (with its flat fingerboard and tuning pegs), offer compelling qualitative evidence of the banjo's Caribbean birth as part of a creolization process.

Regarding the term creolization, I like the definition of creolization offered by David Buisseret and Steven G. Reinhardt (editors) on the back cover of their book Creolization in the Americas(College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2000), where they say, "Creolization, the process of cultural interchange -- in this case, between peoples of the continents bordering the Atlantic Ocean -- is an important aspect of the American experience. Language, literature, food, dress, and social relations are all affected by the interplay of cultures. Only recently, though, have scholars fully begun to understand creolization as a mutual exchange rather than the acculturation of colonized peoples to a dominant culture."

For more information and perspectives regarding the banjo's roots, please consider taking a look at www.myspace.com/banjoroots

Have a great week,

*Some members of the banjo roots research community question whether this is actually Stedman's "creole bania" or one that was actually collected by F. A. Kuhn who was also in Suriname in the eighteen-teens and 1820s.

Dan'l said:

To the clawhammer point, it's my understanding that what we call clawhammer is, in detail at least, not anymore the original stroke style brought by Africans to the Americas and indicated in the first tutors. Clawhammer and the other related styles (rapping, framing, frailing, etc.) rather developed gradually in the more isolated parts of the U.S. and Canada. Meanwhile, the "guitar-style" for banjos became more prevelant and branched into into full classical styles, as well as special styles such as two-finger etc., eventually even leading to bluegrass 3-finger style. Certainly all of those styles have survived and are still around, a continuum and a rich heritage that I find fascinating. I merely meant, as you pointed out, that guitar-style became more prevelant than the original stroke style, the African form, and I don't have an agenda for what that means. It just happened that way. We each can appreciate each style regardless of how prevelant it ever was or where it came from. The original stroke style was , after all, only just revived late in the 20th century by researchers and fans of the style.

As to the point d, I concede your point that a more accurate way of describing early banjo technique is that is was a blending of styles. But as to your other point, I would appreciate your passing on any source that claims the major innovations, the flat fingerboard, 5 strings, etc. were done at the hands of slaves/african descendents. From what I've read on it proto-banjos had 4 or fewer strings, hardly any had a flat fretboard, not even to mention a hoop and mechanical tighteners.

America is a melting pot, but there is no purpose in glossing over one set of evidence in preference to another.

Dan Wykes
With regard to the flat fingerboard, all that you have to do is to look at the early drawings, and also at the early examples we have of gourd banjos. A flat fingerboard is not the same thing as a fretboard, and I would not argue that frets were an addition by white players. But I certainly feel that the flat fingerboard was done long before white players picked the instrument up.


Maybe this is my opinion, but it looks like the scrollhead of a violin was the basis for some of the early banjos that I have seen.

With regard to a wooden hoop rather than a gourd, a Virginia resident (Birth of the Banjo, pp 130-131) describing banjos said "Sometimes the rim would be made of maple, or the rim of a sugar box, would be used.... the banjo.... was quite common with the negro, or at least the boatmen just named, before Mr Sweeney was known as a performer on it, and it is even probably years before he was born."

Looking a little further into the matter, I will concede that there is a strong chance that the fifth string was an addition by white players.
Here is some information regarding spelling the word "banjo" with some names of the instrument as noted in the Caribbean. Again, if these are references many of us are familiar with, I hope it's okay for me to present them here:
“Strum-strump”---------------------(Jamaica, 1687)
“Bangil”------------------------------(Barbados, 1708)
“Bangil”--------------------------------(Jamaica, 1739)
“Strum-strum”-----------------------(Jamaica, 1740)
“Banshaw” ----------------------------(St. Kitts, 1763)
“Creole Bania”-----------------(Suriname, 1773-77)
“Banjay”---------------------------------(Barbados, 1784)
“Banjar”---------------------------------(Antigua, 1788)
“Banjar”------------------------------(Barbados, 1796)
“Banza”---------------------------------(Caribbean[?], 1810)
“Bonjaw”------------------------------(Jamaica, 1823)

The earliest reference to a banjo in North America is the "banger" in 1736 in New York City. One of the earliest references to the banjo as "banjo" is with Nicholas Cresswell in the Journal of Nicholas Cresswell, 1774-1777, well before the 1820-1860 time frame. Everything, except the 1736 "banger" reference, plus others can be found in Dena Epstein's Sinful Tunes and Spirituals (Chicago: U. of Illinois Press, 1977, 2003) as well as her Folk Banjo article.

I hope this adds some clarification. I'm sure there will be many more variants to uncover as the research continues. As far as Caribbean references are concerned, I've been corresponding with and briefly met a historian from Duke University who is doing a lot of work on the banjo in the Caribbean. His research suggests that there is a lot more to learn about the banjo in the Caribbean through, especially, archival research as well as musical retentions now in the 21st century.

Talk to you soon,

Dan'l said:

e) Lastly, instruments that preceded the banjo (those proto-banjos having other names) took hundreds of years or more to reach that point of development. The object defined finally as a banjo, the thing we recognize as that name, was developed in about 50 years (1820's - 1860's), which should qualify it rightly as a thing original to the Americas, in particular the Antebellum U.S., to at least moderate the African connection for what it meant or didn’t mean to banjo development.

Dan Wykes

*if the common meaning of the word drone, in a musical dictionary sense, is a constant sound, most often in low register and often of a buzzing nature, than the term "drone string" for the short banjo string is not as accurate as "chime" or "chanterelle"

I believe I misread the sentiment you were offering in point "e." I initially took it as focusing on spelling the word "banjo." Sorry for my confusion.

Off to bed, going to work on Monday morning comes all too early,

I really like this particular video of akonting playing: http://youtu.be/lzt0v9roU6g

- i especially like the instrumental part he plays at about 2:00 minute mark....seems minstrel-ish to me.

Check out that major bridge he has on it!

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