Banjo Ancestors: The Early Banjo in the New World

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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.”

Banza and strum-strum were just two of the many names for the earliest forms of the banjo, which made their first appearance in the Caribbean, most likely sometime in the 1630s or ’40s. From 1689 on through the early 19th century, European observers documented other terms for these instruments such as Creole bania (Surinam), bangil (Barbados, Jamaica), banshaw (St. Kitts) and merry-wang (Jamaica). Two of the most common names were banza in the French, Spanish and Portuguese colonies and banjar (also banjer, banjor, banja, banjah, etc.) in the English colonies.

(From Shlomo Pescoe’s excellent site dedicated to banjo history. Thanks to Shlomo for this intro.)

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