'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.

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