'The Old Plantation', c. 1785-1790, South Carolina (The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Colonial Williamsburg)

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Stedman 'Creole Bania': A Look at the World’s Oldest Banjo

By Shlomo Pestcoe

The Creole Bania (above), currently on display in the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde (National Museum of Ethnology; Leiden, the Netherlands), is considered to be the oldest extant example of the early gourd banjo (c. 1620 – 1860), the Afro-Creole/African American plucked spike lute that was the original type of banjo. [1] It is thought to have been collected in the northeastern South American country of Suriname (also formerly known as Dutch Guiana) by Captain John Gabriel Stedman (1744-1797), sometime between 1773 and 1777. [2]  During this period, Captain Stedman served with Colonel Louis Henry Fourgeoud's military expeditionary force, made up of foreign "volunteers," sent from the Netherlands to subdue "revolted Negroes" during the Dutch colony's First Boni-Maroon War (1768-1777). [3]  These “revolted Negroes” were, in fact, Maroons, escaped African and Afro-Creole slaves who formed independent communities in “the bush.” Today their descendents constitute distinct “tribes” (ethnic/linguistic groups) throughout the Caribbean and Latin America. 

In addition to the instrument he brought back, Stedman also documented and illustrated the “Creole-Bania” as No. 15 in a group of eighteen different “instruments of sound” played by the “African Negroes” of Suriname in his book, Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, from 1772 to 1777 (1790/1796, 1988/2010):

No. 15 is the Creole-Bania; this is like a mandoline or guitar, being made of a half gourd covered with a sheep-skin, to which is fixed a very long neck or handle; this instrument has but four strings, three long and one short, which is thick and serves for a bass; it is played by the fingers, and has a very agreeable sound, more so when accompanied by a song. [4]

Stedman's specification of the Creole-Bania's four strings as being "three long and one short" is the first and only period textual description of the typical string configuration for a 4-string early gourd banjo. Moreover, the accompanying illustration of the Creole-Bania in the top right corner of Narrative's Plate 69, "Musical Instruments of the African Negroes" (1790/1796, 1988/2010: 539) (see illustration top right on this page) clearly shows that the short string was the top fourth string, the one closest to the player's chest. This is akin to the short fifth string on the early gourd banjo's successor, the wood-rimmed 5-string banjo, which in banjo parlance is referred to as the thumb-string or chanterelle.

That the Creole-Bania's '1+3' string configuration was standard for 4-string early gourd banjos is borne out by the fact that the Leiden instrument has the exact same configuration, as does the Schoelcher Banza (c. 1840-41, Haiti), the only other period 4-string early gourd banjo known to exist. The same is true of the 4-string early gourd banjo depicted in what is perhaps the most recognizable image of the instrument, the late 18th century watercolor entitled The Old Plantation (c. 1785-1790, South Carolina: The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Colonial Williamsburg, VA).   
As in Stedman’s description and illustration, the instrument in the Leiden museum has four strings are attached to wooden friction tuning pegs in the lute’s elaborately carved peghead. The top short 'thumb string' was originally affixed to a wooden tuning peg that was inserted into a hole bored through the topside of a large bump on instrument's neck. That peg was broken off in its hole or replaced with a wooden dowel which had its ends cut off.

It is important to note that Dena J. Epstein -- the 'mother' of banjo roots research -- makes no mention of Stedman’s 1790/1796 account of the “Creole-Bania” nor of the one he brought back in either of her seminal works, “The Folk Banjo: A Documentary History,” Ethnomusicology, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Sep., 1975) and Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War (University of Illinois Press, 1977, 2003). This may be due to the fact that her works were published before Richard and Sally Price’s 1979 journal article cited here. Yet, this would not explain why Epstein failed to include any reference to Stedman or the Creole Bania in the “Preface to the 2003 Paperback” of the reprint of Sinful Tunes & Spirituals. This was where she cited new findings made in the twenty-six years since her masterwork was first published. One possible reason for this major omission may have been the fact that Epstein focused her investigations on African American culture, music, and dance in the Anglophone and Francophone areas of the Caribbean and North America, and not South America.

'Creole Bania': A Look at Stedman’s Term

Curiously enough, in addition to the "Creole-Bania" (No. 15) Stedman also reports the designation bania as being used by Surinam's blacks to describe two other unrelated instruments. One was the “Ansokko-Bania” (No. 3), an unusual xylophone-like instrument comprised of "a hard board, supported on both sides like a low seat, on which are placed small blocks of different sizes... struck with two small sticks like a dulcimer." [5] The other was the “Loango-Bania” (No.10), a thumb-piano made of "a dry board, on which are laced, and kept down by a transverse bar, different sized elastic splinters of the palm tree." The bowl pictured directly below the Loango-Bania "is a large empty callebash [sic] to promote the sound [of the Loango-Bania]; the extremities of the splinters are snapt [sic] by the fingers, something in the manner of a piano-forte, when the music has a soft and very pleasing effect" (Stedman, 1796 / Price & Price, 1992: 277 - 278).

Clearly, "Bania" must have been a generic term for music instrument. Perhaps the word came from one of the many Central and West African tongues that went into the mix to form Suriname's unique African-rooted creole languages: Sranan Tongo, Saramaccan, and Aukan. Unfortunately, we may never know for sure as it is not in current usage nor, for that matter, has it been documented historically other than in Stedman's account. In fact, to the best of my research, the only place in the historical record that the term bania appears as a designation for music instruments seems to be in Stedman’s list of “the instruments of sound” made and played by Suriname’s blacks.

Having said that, in Stedman's hyphenated terms "Creole-Bania," “Loango-Bania,” and “Ansokko-Bania,” the prefixal words seem to indicate the given instrument's cultural origin and/or primary association. “Loango” was apparently a specific reference to slaves from the Vili Kingdom of Loango which was based on the central Atlantic coast of what is now the Republic of Congo. A large number of Suriname’s slaves where imported from that region. However, it is not clear what Stedman meant by the designation “Ansokko.” Just who were the “Ansokko” is mystifying as Stedman does not explicate the term nor does he use it anywhere else in his book. Moreover, it does not appear to be the appellation of any known ethnic group in Africa nor is it the name of any known Maroon tribe in Suriname.
As for “Creole Bania,” following the custom of the period, Stedman referred to blacks of African descent born in Europe’s New World colonies as “Creoles.” By characterizing this instrument as being “Creole,” Stedman conveys his understanding that the early gourd banjo he encountered in Suriname was not something that was brought over from Africa. Rather, he perceived it as a folk instrument unique to Surinamese Creoles and, therefore, a product of the African Diaspora in the New World, as opposed to an African import.

As stated, the Creole Bania was as an early gourd banjo. As such reflected the syncretic fusion of various traditional West African plucked spike lute designs with Western European influences and accoutrements.

Is this somehow reflected in the term ‘bania', a designation for the early gourd banjo that is only found in Stedman’s list?

Today, we know of more sixty distinct traditions of plucked lute found throughout West Africa. Yet, none of these are called “bania.” 

The earliest appearance of the designation 'bania' in connection with West African string instruments seems to be found in A Descriptive Catalogue of The Musical Instruments in The South Kensington Museum (1874) by Carl Engel (1818-1882):

The name bania, given in Senegambia to an instrument of the guitar kind, may, perhaps, be identical to the Vei bana, and also with the banjo, which appears to be the Senegambian bania imported by negro slaves into America. (Engel 1874: 151)

Engel's assertion that the bania was a Senegambian "instrument of the guitar kind" and that it was the archetype for the banjo next appears in the first edition of George Grove's A Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1880) in the entry on the banjo by A. J. Hipkins, Esq. Hipkins specifically cites the above statement by Engel in A Descriptive Catalogue as the source for the ideas that 1) the Senegambian 'bania' was, in fact, "a guitar instrument" of "the negros of Western Africa," and 2) that it was "the parent of the American negro's banjo"(1880: 135). 

European and American scholars and writers continued to make reference to the bania well into the late 20th century. The eminent German ethnomusicologist/organologist Curt Sachs (1881-1959) described it as a Senegambian lute-type instrument with a "piriform" (pear-shaped) wooden body in Reallexikon der Musikinstrumente (Berlin: Julius Bard, 1913/ New York: Dover Publications, 1964: 30). While Sachs offers no specific source citation for his entry on the bania, he does include Engel's A Descriptive Catalogue in his bibliography (1913/1964: XVI). This being the case, it stands to reason that Engel's book was the Sach's source on the bania.

Yet, American ethnomusicologist Michael Coolen's investigations in Senegambia in the 1970s yielded not a single trace of the bania or anyone who had even heard of it. Curiously enough, Coolen was more successful in his inquiries about “banshaw,” a cognate term for the early gourd banjo that was documented in the West Indian island of St. Kitts in 1763. He did find one informant who was acquainted with the word:

Abdulai Ndiaye of Dakar, Senegal, is a master builder of xalams, and he stated that the term "banshaw" is an old term used by the Wolof to refer to non-Wolof guitar-like instruments. Insisting that the term is a non-Wolof word, Ndiaye stated that it is a European word which has essentially disappeared from common use, replaced by the term "guitar."

-- Michael T. Coolen, "Senegambian Archetypes for the American Folk Banjo," Western Folklore, Vol. 43, No. 2 (April, 1984), 131.

Quandary: Stedman’s Creole Bania or Kuhn’s Banja?

When Stedman returned to the Netherlands in 1777, he brought back a Creole Bania that he had acquired in Suriname. Together with other examples of the eighteen "musical instruments of the African Negroes" he documented in Suriname, the Creole Bania eventually ended up in the Koninklijk Kabinet van Zeldzaamheden (Royal Cabinet of Curiosities) in The Hague. In 1883, the Creole Bania, along with the rest of Stedman's Suriname collection, was transferred to Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde (National Museum of Ethnology) in Leiden as part of a 10,444 piece ethnographic collection.

Nothing more is heard of the instrument until 1979, when Richard and Sally Price “rediscovered” it in the course of their search through the collections of the Rijksmuseum for the artifacts that Stedman had brought back from Suriname. The Prices are renowned anthropologists/historians who were among the leading pioneers of modern research into Maroon history and culture and African Diaspora culture in general. They're also the foremost experts on John Stedman as well as on the African/Afro-Creole slave and Maroon cultures he encountered and documented in Suriname. 

In 1988, the Prices’ came out with the definitive edition of Stedman’s Narrative, based on Stedman's original handwritten manuscript as well as the journal he kept during his tour of duty in Suriname. Stedman had completed the book's manuscript in 1790 but it was not published until 1796. Much to Stedman's chagrin, what came off the presses in 1796 was a heavily edited version of his original manuscript and his eighty-one illustrations "design'd from Nature on the Spot." This being the case, the Prices’ edition more accurately reflects the actual book Stedman wrote and intended to publish.
That said, it should be noted that there's a possibility that the instrument which Richard and Sally Price had identified as the Stedman Creole Bania back in 1979 may, in fact, be another instrument collected in Suriname in the early 19th century, the Kuhn Banja. Like the Stedman Creole Bania, the existence of the Kuhn Banja would've remained unknown had it not been for the Prices' diligent, extensive research.

As the Prices point out in their article “John Gabriel Stedman's Collection of 18th Century Artifacts from Suriname” (Nieuwe West-Indische Gids, Volume 53 #3-4, June 1979: 121-139), Dr. F. A. Kuhn first started practicing medicine in Suriname in 1816 and became the Dutch colony's surgeon general sometime in the 1820s. In 1824 he presented a collection of 35 objects, mostly from Suriname, to the Koninklijk Kabinet van Zeldzaamheden, many of which were collected "by my late brother on an expedition to the maroons in 1818.

In his letter of 1824 which accompanied the donation, Kuhn described the lute as "[a] musical instrument of the Negros, the body of which is a covered calabash. It resembles a kind of mandolin and the Negroes call such an instrument Banja."

Kuhn's collection eventually ended up in the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde. The Kuhn Banja was apparently mislabeled – perhaps during the massive reorganization and inventorying of the greater ethnographic collection three years before its transfer to the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde in 1883 -- and eventually disappeared. 

Not all of 35 items that Kuhn gifted to the Royal Cabinet in 1824 were collected by his brother on his "expedition to the maroons in 1818." In fact, there's no indication as to the specific provenance of the banja (#1600). To compound the mystery of the Kuhn Banja even further, when the Prices searched for the missing instrument through the Rijksmuseum’s collections, they found a 'Mandingo' 16-string harp-lute from West Africa in its place.

Kuhn’s description of the “banja” seems to more aptly describe the instrument which the Prices identified as Stedman's Creole Bania (#5696) back in 1979. Another key point to consider is the fact that it was the Prices, rather than the museum curatorial staff, who made the call that this instrument was, indeed, the Creole Bania that Stedman had brought back from Suriname:

Although the central catalogue assigns this object to the 'Japan and Asia' department and gives it no specific provenience, the object itself (as well as correct data on provenience) is located in the South American department. Comparison of the museum object with Stedman's description and drawings suggests that this is indeed the stringed instrument which he collected. The wooden neck of the banja [sic] is now broken off in two places at its carved end and at the peg for its shortest string.... (Richard & Sally Price, 1979: 131)

Richard Price reiterated this point in his email response to Ulf Jägfors on August 30, 2007:

There is only one Stedman “banjo”. And there is the still-missing one collected by Kuhn. JGS’s description of his banjo exactly matches the instrument we found in Leiden. That’s it, as far as I know.

This being the case, could it be that the instrument that the Prices found in the collections of the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde in Leiden was actually the long-lost Kuhn Banja and not Stedman's Creole Bania?

The lute that the Prices identified as being the Creole Bania that Stedman brought back from Suriname in 1777 differs significantly from Stedman's description and illustration of the Creole Bania in his Narrative. Stedman described the instrument as having a body "made of a half gourd covered with a sheep-skin." In is depiction of the Creole Bania in the book's illustration, Plate 69, Musical Instruments of the African Negroes [of Suriname] (see the above illustration), the instrument's body is large and appears to be made of an oval, ovoid, or teardrop-shaped gourd (Lagenaria siceraria). Conversely, the instrument the Prices found in their 1979 investigation of the collections of the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde (National Museum of Ethnology. Leiden, Holland) had a smaller round body made of calabash (Crescentia cujete).

Another glaring discrepancy: unlike the Leiden instrument, the full-spike stick neck on the Creole Bania depicted in the book does not go through the sides of the instrument's gourd body to pierce through the body's tail-end. On the contrary, the illustrated lute's neck appears to rest on parallel indentations in the top rim of the instrument's body, thereby, enabling it to go over the body's outer walls and, rather than pierce through them.

Interesting to note, these two very different neck-to-body assemblies are found on traditional West African plucked spike lutes. In looking at the many different plucked lutes found throughout West Africa in terms of the "over-the-rim" vs. "through-the-body" issue, there is a very clear regional divide between the plucked spike lutes of West Africa's Western Sudan region (i.e. Mauritania, Mali, Senegal, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, and Guinea) and those of its Central Sudan region (i.e. Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Côte d'Ivore [Ivory Coast], Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, and Chad).

All Western Sudanese plucked lutes-- regardless of whether they're folk lutes or griot lutes, full-spike or semi-spike, or gourd or wooden bodied-- have the "over-the-rim" feature. The 'over-the-rim' assembly feature was also found on the plucked spike lutes of Pharonic Egypt as well as those of the ancient Near East, going all the way back, some 6,000 years ago, to the very first documented type of plucked lute, the pantur of Ancient Sumer in Mesopotamia.

Conversely, in West Africa's Central Sudan region, while all semi-spike lutes of the region, regardless of body or bridge type, also have the "over-the-rim" construction, Central Sudanese full-spike lutes are "through-the-body" instruments like the Stedman Creole Bania in the Leiden museum. In fact, the full-spike lutes of the Central Sudan, such as the 3-string calabash-bodied gullum of the Kilba and the 2-string gourd-bodied gurmi of the Hausa, are the only instruments with the "through-the-body" construction in the whole family of sixty distinct traditions of plucked spike lutes found throughout West Africa.

The Leiden 'Creole Bania': A Display Piece?

Perhaps the most perplexing and troubling thing about the Leiden "Creole Bania" is that it seems to have been made to be a display piece rather than a working instrument. The instrument is totally unplayable due to three deep grooves, incised down the length of the fingerboard, which are apparently there to receive and hold in place the instrument's three long strings.

According to the Prices in the introduction of their 1992 edition of Stedman's Narrative, this instrument was "collected by Stedman from a slave in Suriname" (Price & Price, 1992: xxv). Yet, as pointed out, the Leiden instrument is clearly meant to be a non-functioning display piece, something a common slave would probably not make or posses, unless he had been a master craftsman.
Looking over the instrument, it seems that it may well have been made by a skilled woodworker who was not a traditional instrument maker, but, rather, one who specialized in cabinetry, joinery, frame-making, etc in the Western European tradition. This would explain why it was made to be a display piece rather than a playable functioning instrument.

Further evidence for this theory can be found in the bevel carving all along the pegheads front and back edges. This is a type of ornamentation that is common in Western European fine woodworking of the period, such as furniture-making and wainscoting, but not seen on instruments, regardless of type, style or tradition. Likewise, the style of instrument’s tuning pegs is quite unlike those found in any known tradition.

If it was indeed the case that the Leiden instrument had been made by a fine woodworker who was not a traditional instrument maker, it seems likely that the entire design of peghead – which is certainly quite unusual -- may have been inspired by Western European decorative aesthetics rather than any particular instrument tradition. It may well have been the maker’s attempt to create a fanciful "exotic" motif to reflect and emphasize the non-European nature of the instrument.

One possible explanation for this dilemma might be that Stedman specially commissioned an enslaved wood craftsman to create the piece. However, there is no evidence to suggest that Stedman ever contracted such a commission.

As the Prices also noted, Stedman used his journal to keep a meticulous record of his daily life in Suriname:

Stedman's log of daily events during his years in Suriname recorded details of his personal life (from dinners with planters to nights spent wenching), military activities, and anecdotes about the natural and social worlds around him.... (Price & Price, 1992: xxiv)

Faithfully, he kept on-the-spot notes-- sometimes jotted down on cartridges or even on "a Bleached bone" when writing paper was not available (1790/1988, 578; cf. p. 299)-- and then strung them together in a small green notebook... On the final page of his "small green almanack," covering 29 October 1772 to 29 April 1774, he wrote, "This Small Journal is written with the greatest attention, founded on facts allone by Captt. John G. S--n, who Shall explain it more at large one day, if Providance Spares him in life." (Price & Price, 1992: xxv)

It stands to reason that if Stedman had, indeed, commissioned the manufacture of the instrument, he would have made note of this in his "small green almanack." Likewise, the Prices-- who have been incredibly exacting and thorough in their very comprehensive research as well as super meticulous in their writing-- would have noted this fact rather than simply saying that it was "collected by Stedman from a slave in Suriname."

Be that as it may, the instrument in Leiden's Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde is, in no uncertain terms, the oldest extant early banjo. This is regardless of whether or not it is actually the Stedman Creole Bania or the Kuhn Banja, and regardless of whether or not it is an actual playable instrument. Furthermore, we owe the Prices a great debt of gratitude for rediscovering and documenting this wonderful-- if not, intriguingly mysterious-- instrument.

[1] Richard and Sally Price, “John Gabriel Stedman’s Collection of 18th- Century Artifacts from Suriname,” Nieuwe West-Indishe Gids, Vol. 53, No. 3-4 (June 1979), 126, 131, 138. I coined the term early gourd banjo in 2006 to refer the original forms of the banjo. These were the immediate predecessors of the wooden-rimmed 5-string banjo, which first emerged in the United States around 1840 in the context of professional 'blackface' performance. Early gourd banjos were first documented as Afro-Creole/African American folk instruments in the circum-Caribbean, starting in the 17th century.
[2] John Gabriel Stedman, edited and with an introduction and notes by Richard Price and Sally Price, Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, from 1772 to 1777: Transcribed For The First Time From the Original 1790 Manuscript  (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988; iUniverse, 2010), XXIX
[3] Ibid., XXI – XXVI.
[4] Ibid, 540.  Stedman's characterization of the Creole Bania’s top short ‘thumb string’ as being “thick” and serving “for a bass” is erroneous. In all likelihood, this was meant to be a reference to the instrument’s third string, which was the thick bass string in the typical four-string configuration of the early gourd banjo: “three long and one short.” Throughout the world there are several traditional plucked lutes with top short strings, such as the 5-string tiplón of Puerto Rico and the 12-string viola beiroa of Portugal. On all of these instruments the top short string – or, in the case of the Portuguese viola beiroa, the top course of two adjacent short strings – is invariably the thinnest string (or the same thickness as the first treble string) and pitched in a high octave.
[5] Ibid, 277.

Friday, September 7, 2007

The Banjo's African Roots: The Thumb String & Playing Styles

Daniel Jatta, a Jola musician/scholar from The Gambia (West Africa) playing his people's folk lute, the banjo-like ekonting (akonting). In the background is a print of The Banjo Player (1856) by William Sidney Mount(1807-1868). (Photo by Ulf Jagfors)


Shlomo Pestcoe

The unique feature that gives the 5-string banjo its distinctive appearance and sound is the top 5th string, an unstopped open string which is much shorter than the other four strings. In banjo parlance, this 5th string is referred to as the chanterelle or "thumb string."

In the heyday of blackface minstrelsy, a myth sprang up that credited pioneering minstrel banjoist/fiddler Joe Sweeney with the invention of the 5-string banjo's "thumb string" and the 5-string version of the banjo itself.

By all accounts, Joel Walker Sweeney (1813-1860)-- known professionally under the stage name "Joe Sweeney"-- was a major seminal performer in the burgeoning pop genre of minstrelsy. He certainly was one of the first European American stage musicians to adopt and master the African American banjo.

As banjoist/historian Bob Carlin notes in his highly-acclaimed book The Birth of the Banjo: Joel Walker Sweeney and Early Minstrelsy (McFarland & Company, Inc. North Carolina, 2007):
Judge Robert Bolling Pore/Poore (1841-1910) first voiced the contention in print that Sweeney was the inventor of the "5th" string. Pore, then the Appomattox County [Virginia] attorney, grew up a mile from the Sweeney family and knew Joe as a child (a cousin to Joe Sweeney's neighbor Joel Flood, Pore also served with the Sweeneys in the conflict between the north and the south). Judge Pore gave this account of how Joe Sweeney began at the age of twelve to learn music "on the violin and four-string gourd":

"At a very early age he developed a great love for music and became when still a boy of 12 years old quite a proficient on the banjo and violin. As he grew and became proficient in the use of tools he undertook to make his own instruments and by the time he was 21 years of age and free from his father's control he added the 5th string or thumb string to the banjo." (R.B. Pore to G.W. Inge, July 25, 1890) (Carlin 2007: 127)
By the mid-1840s, the 5-string banjo with a body made from a circular wooden hoop frame (sometimes referred to as a "cheese box") had become the preferred form of the instrument. Prior to that, the typical banjo had a gourd body-- either round, oval, or teardrop shaped-- with three to four strings, four strings being the most common configuration.

Our knowledge of the earliest forms of the banjo in the Caribbean and the Americas comes primarily from the handful of published accounts and graphic illustrations left to us by contemporary European and European American observers. Many of these references can be found in Dena Epstein's pioneering work Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War (1977), as well as her ground-breaking article The Folk Banjo: A Documentary History (Ethnomusicology, Volume 19, Number 3, September 1975), all of which she culled from her exhaustive research of period documentation.

One of the earliest and most detailed depictions of a gourd banjo in North America is the anonymous folk painting, The Old Plantation, dated to the late 18th century. It's currently in the collection of The Abbey Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center, one of the museums at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. Found in Columbia, South Carolina, the painting, circa 1790s, depicts African American slaves on a plantation dancing to the music of a banjo and a percussive found-object instrument, made from an overturned kitchen vessel and played with two thin sticks.

Incredibly enough, two actual early banjos have survived to this very day in European museum collections: the Stedman Creole Bania (Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde, [National Museum of Ethnology], Leiden, Holland) and the Schoeler Banza (Musee de la Musique, Paris, France). The Creole Bania-- considered to be the oldest example of an early gourd banjo-- was collected in the northeastern South American country Suriname (also formerly known as Dutch Guiana) by Captain John Gabriel Stedman (1744-1797), sometime between February 2, 1773, when Stedman arrived in the colony, and April 1st, 1777, when he set sail to return to Holland. Captain Stedman served with Colonel Louis Henry Fourgeoud's military expeditionary force, made up of foreign "volunteers," (read "mercenaries") sent from Holland to subdue "revolted Negroes" during the Dutch colony's First Boni Maroon War (1768-1777). French abolitionist writer Victor Schoelcher (1804-1893) acquired the Banza in Haiti during his 1840-41 sojourn through the Caribbean.

In the cases of both of these extant early banjos and the banjo depicted in The Old Plantation, we can clearly see that these three instruments were all 4-stringed with the top string (the one closest to the player's chest) being a short "thumb string."

Further evidence of the early 4-string banjo's configuration with a short top "thumb string" can be found in Captain Stedman's book, Narrative of a Five Years' Expedition Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, in Guiana, on the Wild Coast of South America, from 1772 to 1777 (1796). In the book's section on the musical instruments and dances of the enslaved Africans and Creoles (blacks born in Guiana) he observed, Stedman wrote:

The Creole-Bania... is like a mandoline or guitar, being made of a half gourd covered with a sheep-skin, to which is fixed a very long neck or handle. This instrument has but four strings, three long and one short, which is thick, and serves for a bass; it is played by the fingers, and has a very agreeable sound, but more so when accompanied by a song.
Tracing the New World banjo's roots all the way back across the Atlantic to West Africa, we can also see the "thumb string" in various different ethnic traditions of plucked lutes. In the immense diversity of the myriad different kinds of instruments that make up the West African lute family, the ones which are the most strikingly similar to the earliest forms of the New World banjo are the gourd-bodied folk lutes of Casamance (southern Senegal), Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau. These include: the Jola ekonting (akonting), Manjak bunchundo, Bujogo (also Bijago) nopata, Pepel busunde, and Balanta kisinta and kusunde.

These six lutes from Upper Guinea Coast region of West Africa--also known as "The Rice Coast" during the Transatlantic Slave Trade-- are all 3-string with two long strings and a short "thumb string." The Jola ekonting and Bujogo nopata are played in a down-picking style that's remarkably reminiscent of the 19th century stroke style of playing the banjo and its folk offspring, clawhammer and frailing.

The plucked lutes which are exclusive to the griot castes also have a short drone string. Examples of griot lutes include: the Bamana (Bambara) n'goni, the Wolof xalam, the FulBe (Fula, Fulani, Peule) hoddu, and the Soninke gambare. However, on many of the different ethnic versions-- especially those that have a 5-string configuration-- the short drone is the bottom string, the one closest to the player's lap. The number of strings on the various different ethnic forms of griot lute range from three to eight. There is also a single-string version of the griot lute known by a variety of names: molo (Senegal), jurkel (Burkina Faso), and juru kelenni (Mali. This instrument is no longer played but was recently "rediscovered" by American banjoist Jayme Stone).

In the 5-string configuration of the griot lute the top string closest to the player's chest is actually a second drone string. It's a bit longer than the very short drone string on the bottom-- the instrument's 1st string-- but much shorter than the three long strings in the middle. On the griot lute, the melody is typically played only on two strings. These are the only two long strings which are stopped (i.e. depressed at different points along the given string's length against the instrument's neck by the player's fingers to make the various different notes). The rest of the strings on griot lutes serve as unstopped open drones.

The Gnawa guinbri is a plucked lute of North Africa, which, in many ways, parallels the early banjo of the New World. Like the banjo, the guinbri can trace its roots back to the plucked lute family of West Africa. The Gnawa are a North African Muslim brotherhood as well as an ethnic group made up of descendants of slaves and soldiers from West Africa. Their lute, the guinbri (also sintir or hajhuj) typically has three strings with a short drone as its middle string. Its rectangular body is hollowed-out wood and the strings are affixed to the neck with West African-style tuning rings. The guinbri's semi-spike neck ends in three spikes that stick out right below the soundhole in the head to which the ends of the strings are attached. This feature on the end of the guinbri's semi-spike neck is similar to those found on Hausa lutes from Nigeria and Niger as well as the Gwari kaburu of northern Nigeria and a no-name 19th century gourd-bodied, semi-spike lute from Mali in the Musical Instrument Museum (Brussels, Belgium).

Another important parallel between the Gnawa guinbri and the banjo is the similar down-picking playing styles. Down-picking is a technique in which the fingernail of a single finger-- either the index or middle finger-- is used to strike one of the long strings in a downward motion, like a plectrum. This action is immediately followed by the player's thumb catching on the top short "thumb string"-- in the case of the Gnawa guinbri, the top 3rd bass string-- to create a rhythmic back-beat accompaniment.

A variation on the down-picking technique I've just described is called drop-thumbing in banjo parlance. In drop-thumbing, the thumb alternates to pluck down on one of the longer strings after catching the thumb string. Drop-thumbing is an essential element of banjo down-picking.

The earliest documented technique for the playing the banjo is a form of drop-thumb down-picking called stroke style. This was the playing style that Joe Sweeney learned from the African American slave musicians who were his teachers and mentors. It was also the prevalent style of playing the banjo from the beginning of minstrelsy in the 1830s on through the late 1860s when stroke style began to give way to the "guitar style" of up-picking, also known as "finger-picking."

Recent field research indicates that the playing techniques of down-picking and drop-thumbing probably originated in West Africa. We can see this in the traditions of the Jola akonting (Casamance [southern Senegal], Gambia, Guinea-Bissau), Bujogo ngopata (the Bijago Islands off the coast of Guinea-Bissau), Gwari kaburu (Nigeria), and the Dogon konou (Mali).

The Jola o'teck technique of down-picking the akonting is the only West African down-picking playing style found thus which incorporates drop-thumbing. Drop-thumbing is occasionally used in the down-picking style of the North African guinbri.

Down-picking can also be seen to a lesser extant in the playing techniques of the Griots, though the main griot playing technique is actually a 2-finger up-picking (referred to as finger-picking in banjo playing). Griot 2-finger up-picking consists of the index finger plucking upwards on a melody string. This is immediately followed by by the thumb plucking downwards on the top string. The index finger than brushes down all the strings in a strum.

It's interesting to note that the griot 2-finger up-picking technique is remarkably similar to traditional 5-string banjo 2-finger up-picking, in particular those regional styles with an index finger lead. Like down-picking, this form of banjo 2-finger up-picking may well have originated in West Africa.