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

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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good post.