The story of the Banjo underscores for me the reason why I started this blog. It shows pretty clearly, in my opinion, how interconnected the culture and history of the African diaspora is in the New World.
Thanks to John Gabriel Stedman we have a good idea of what instruments the slaves in Suriname played. Stedman was a mercenary, hired to fight against the maroons in Suriname during the mid 18th century maroon wars.
Here is a drawing from Stedman of Instruments he encountered in Suriname in 1776:
Could this be the history of the banjo?
It may be a surprise to some but the banjo is of African origin. The Banjo was in fact a common instrument among the early African American traveling Blues bands.
There is an instrument with a striking resemblance of a banjo, and is likely similar to what the early USA banjo looked like among the early slaves there. It was called a bania in Suriname.
Image from Rijksmuseum showing a Bania from 1771:
Below you will see two great musicians from Suriname holding the actual bania, Robby Favery, and Ronald Snijders. Robby Favery explains that the bania was made from a tree calabas, a small type of gourd compared to the larger ground calebash which to my knowledge is not found in Suriname..
Here is the video of the actual, over 200 year old instrument, which is stored in the Rijks museum in Leiden, Netherlands:
The first video is of an African America Banjo player named Cedric Watson who plays a gourd banjo:
This video is of Senegal’s, Sana Ndiaye, playing a traditional akonting. Note the striking similarities to the style of banjo player Cedric Watson from the previous video:
Besides the Bania there is an instrument that looks very similar to the Berimbau (think Brazilian Capoeira)
There is also an instrument in Suriname that is played by the Aluku called the Agwado. It is smaller than the bolon. I wasn’t able to find any music of it online. I heard it before and the main difference with the bolon was that it has higher pitch and is smaller. The playing style is pretty much identical however.
Here are some a pictures of an agwado. The agwado is played like a small version of a bolon from Guinea Africa and is used as a drum and string instrument at the same time. The instruments pictured are likely recreated from vague memory:
Here is what a skilled Bolon player sounds like today:
What I have been able to find out is that in Africa Musicians hold a high place in society and the skills are usually passed down from father to son. One could imagine how losing a link in this tradition can be devastating. It is likely that a lot of these skills and the instruments were lost during the long maroon wars in Suriname.
Another factor is that the type of gourd used for these instruments is not available in Suriname. The gourds used in Suriname are generally much smaller than the ones common in Africa, which grow like a watermelon plant.
I had to edit this post after seeing this image from the Jamaican history archives.
illustration of West African and Afro-Creole instruments in Jamaica, c. 1687 (Image Source: SLOANE2, http://www.slaveryimages.org). From Sir Hans Sloane’s “A Voyage to the Islands of Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christopher and Jamaica” (1707). After more investigation I found the instrument that was likely depicted above in Ghana. It is called seperewa.
Here is a short performance of seperewa:
This West African instrument, the kora, has no history in the New World as far as I know but it goes back many centuries, and it is likely the type of music many Africans of the Gold Coast were used to.
It is one of the most beautiful instruments I’ve ever heard so I decided to ad it here as well since it’s somewhat related to this topic.
Toumani Diabate demonstrates the Kora:
The kora is played with the thumbs and index fingers.
First he shows the bass line
Second he shows the melody
Third he puts it together with improvisation
Fourth my jaw dropped. lol