The Old-Time Herald Volume 10, Number 5

Feature

Searching for the Roots of the Banjo
Part II
By Peter Szego

In the last issue we reviewed the history of scholarship on the early minstrel banjo and the last of the black banjo songsters. We now turn to research on the African ancestors of the banjo and gourd banza, important early banjo discoveries, and the collectors and museum exhibitions that focused attention on these instruments.

Searching for African Ancestors

Paul Oliver, the British architectural historian and blues scholar, was the first to address the African ancestry of the banjo. . . . Oliver identified the Wolof halam (or xalam), one of a family of plucked lutes played by griots, hereditary praise singers and accompanists, in highly stratified Islamic tribal societies along the Sahel, the part of sub-Saharan West Africa which includes Senegal, Gambia, Guinea and Mali.

Daniel Jatta with an akonting.
Courtesy of John Maeder

For the next two decades scholars would continue to unswervingly affirm the griot lute as the African ancestor of the banjo.

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. . . Almost a decade would pass before a renewed focus on the African roots of the banjo. In 1991 Bruce Penner, an independent scholar of West African music, attended a minstrel-style banjo concert by Joe Ayers at the Prism Coffeehouse in Charlotteville. Penner was intrigued by Ayers’ comment that the banjo had originally been tuned down to the pitch of F in the earliest instructors (today banjos are tuned up to C) and wondered whether there was any connection to the fact that F is the preferred pitch of the West African bala (7-note-scale xylophone).

Thus began a dialogue between a scholar of West African music and a minstrel banjo scholar that would yield important insights into the survival of African rhythms in early banjo instructors. Ayers and Penner began to jam on banjo and bala, which Penner had studied with Djimo Kouyate, a soloist for the National Ballet of Senegal.

. . . Over the next several years Ayers and Penner presented a series of lecture concerts that juxtaposed early stroke style melodies with African percussion, thereby providing persuasive evidence that the banjo-playing authors of the early instructors were, at least in part, transcribing the music of plantation blacks in addition to composing new melodies and rearranging American popular and vernacular tunes.

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Charry, Jagfors and Jatta: From Griot to Folk Instrument

The year 2000 was a watershed for scholarship on the African roots of the banjo. Eric Charry’s encyclopedic Mande Music, Traditional and Modern Music of the Maninka and Mandinka of Western Africa was published, and Swedish scholar, Ulf Jagfors, and his Senegambian colleague, Daniel Jatta, presented a paper entitled “The Akonting, One Possible Ancestor to the Banjo” at the third annual Banjo Collectors Gathering in Concord, Massachusetts.

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Buehling and Didlake: Pursuing the Gourd Banza

Two of the most compelling illustrations in Seeger’s How toPlay the 5-String Banjo are the iconic “The Old Plantation” watercolor and a line drawing of a plucked lute, which Seeger describes as “an instrument played by present day minstrels in a village 100 miles east of Dakar, West Africa.” Together these images have inspired one the most impassioned areas of scholarship into the roots of the banjo, research conducted not by academic scholars but by musicians and instrument makers: the search for the gourd banza,

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Searching for the Oldest Banjos

Buehling and Didlake’s excitement over the earliest banjos was hardly unique. In 1971 Michael Holmes set the stage for an active collector community with the publication of the first issue of the periodical, Mugwumps, The Magazine of Folk Instruments. Like Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music issued by Folkways 20 years before, Mugwumps created a mysterious and compelling world through the use of a pot pourri of period illustrations, photographs, advertisements of musical instruments and accessories in a ragged “down home” graphic style. By the last issue in 1981 Mugwumps’ classified ads had included virtually all of the pioneering collectors and dealers in the emerging American vintage instrument market.

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Ross and the Gourd Banza: from Concept to History

Scott Didlake was also inspired by the [MIT] Ring the Banjar exhibit catalog and would devote the last ten years of his life, cut short by ALS, in single-minded pursuit of crafting the ideal gourd banza. His stated objective was to honor West Africans who had given the banjo to the world while being forced to give their lives to slavery. He cultivated his own banjo gourds and produced 250 banzas . . .

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