Banjo Ancestors and Its Origin

Though many people think that the banjo is the all-American instrument, born and developed in the good ol’ U. S. of A., they’re only telling you a partial truth and a very small part of the whole story. What they are thinking of is the 5-string banjo donned by such greats as Earl Scruggs and Bela Fleck. It’s the most prevalent type of banjo in many popular styles of American music such as Bluegrass, Dixieland, and Country, so naturally, being exposed to no other types of banjos, one would assume that the 5-string IS the banjo.

In reality the banjo originated hundreds of years ago somewhere on the African continent. These instruments were quite simple and rough – an animal skin tacked on to a hollowed half of a gourd with three or four strings stretched over a planed stick (keep in mind, too, that there were no such things as frets back then). The strings were often made from waxed horsehair or gut. One name for this instrument was the banjar. (Isn’t it interesting that the pronunciation of this native-African word from ages ago is still being used by the back-woodsy American folk of today?) Anyway…

The story of the banjo begins in the 17th century when African slaves in the New World began making and playing lute-type string instruments with drum-like gourd bodies. In 1678, the French colonial government of Martinique restated an edict issued twenty four years earlier prohibiting African slaves from gathering together for dances and socializing. The new ordinance specified kalendas. More commonly known as la calinda(also calenda), the kalenda was a social gathering of slaves in which they danced dances of clear African origin to the accompaniment of a drum or two and the banza. (In later years, some reports also mentioned the inclusion of the violin in a typical calinda band.)

Eleven years later, Sir Hans Sloane wrote the first report of the early banjo which gave a description of the instrument. In the account of his 1687 sojourn through the West Indies (written in 1689 but not published until 1707), Sir Hans described the “Negroes” in Jamaica as playing strum-strums, which were “Instruments in imitation of Lutes, made from small Gourds fitted with Necks, strung with Horse hairs, or the peeled stalks of climbing Plants or Withs.”

http://www.musicfolk.com/docs/Features/Feature_Banjo.htm

http://www.shlomomusic.com/banjoancestors_earlybanjos.htm

http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/banjo

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