When you see a banjo, what probably comes to your mind is American old-time music. You remember folk, country, and bluegrass music because the banjo has been commonly associated with these American genres. For a long time, people saw the banjo has as a native American instrument.
But did you know that you can trace back the origins of the banjo in West Africa? In this article, you will find out about the banjo’s true origins. This article outlines the date of its invention and presents how the banjo developed throughout the years. You will discover that the banjo evolved from a different form before it came to be the modern instrument we know today.
So, when exactly was the banjo first invented?
The banjo first appeared in America in the 17th century. It was during this time when African slaves came to the United States via the transatlantic slave trade.
It is widely assumed that that the Africans carried the original banjo from their mainland. After bringing the banjo with them, they continued to use the instrument in America.
However, other music historians offered a different perspective. They say that the original banjo, called the early gourd banjo, is actually African-American. This means that the banjo is a hybrid instrument or a product of both African and European influences.
According to Robert Winans in his book “Banjo Roots and Branches”:
“the early gourd banjo may best be described as an African American instrument of West African heritage, rather than a West African instrument imported to the New World (the Americas).”
The original banjos had a gourd body and a wooden stick neck. Its original form incorporated design elements from several different West African lute traditions. It was also inspired by European instruments such as the guitar. You will notice this through the banjo’s flat fingerboard and tuning pegs.
Tracing the ancestors of the Banjo instrument
If you’re interested in exploring the true origins of the banjo, you must trace its original form.
According to historians, the ancestors of the early gourd banjo were the plucked spike lutes of Mesopotamia and the ancient Near East. Plucked lutes are string instruments wherein the neck goes through or over the wall of the instrument’s body.
If you can recall from your history lessons, Mesopotamia is modern-day Iraq, Kuwait, Turkey, and Syria. Meanwhile, the ancient Near East is the modern-day Middle East.
Both early gourd banjos and plucked lutes share one fundamental design feature. The neck of the instrument passes over or through the wall of its body.
Because of this design feature, experts were able to deduce that early gourd banjos may have come from the earliest known lutes in the history of humanity: the plucked spike lutes of Mesopotamia. This means that the early gourd banjos’ ancestors may date back more than four thousand years!
However, more hard evidence is still needed. Gathering evidence can be tricky, especially when folkways from the past were not really recorded.
What the available historical evidence does suggest is that the early gourd banjo was a hybrid. Meaning, it was the product of African and European influences.
When did the Banjo become popular?
As you know, the banjo was primarily an instrument of the black slave culture. Many enslaved Africans played the banjo, particularly in music and dance, and then spread it to the rest of the population.
However, it was in the 1840s when the banjos truly became popular. The popularized banjo is different from the African predecessor of the instrument with gourd bodies. It was now the modern banjo that has a wooden, drum-shaped body. It also features four strings and a short thumb string, similar to today’s five-string banjos.
The banjo became popular through minstrel shows, particularly in blackface performances. Minstrel performers would do a black caricature and imitate them while playing the banjo.
Who popularized the banjo?
Joel Walker Sweeney (1810-1860), a minstrel performer, popularized the five-string banjo in the 1840s. It is believed that he first played the banjo sometime between 1836 and 1840.
- 1836 – Sweeney’s earliest documented appearance in Richmond, Virginia
- 1840 – The time when the first images of the five-string banjo began to appear on sheet music and theatrical handbills and posters
The banjo became popular through Sweeney’s blackface performances in the circus ring and the popular theater stage. He joined the group Virginia Minstrels with William “Billy” Whitlock (1813–1878) and they began doing a traveling minstrel show.
After about a year, Virginia Minstrels brought the banjo to Britain. The five-string instrument would eventually take its place on the world stage as a major popular instrument.
When did the Banjo evolve?
The modern banjo was further developed during the late 19th century and early 20th century. Some evolutions of the banjo were the four-string tenor banjo and the four-string plectrum banjo. It was also during this time when different banjo hybrids first appeared such as the banjo guitar, banjo mandolin, and banjo ukulele.
At present, you will likely associate the banjo and its many different kinds with American genres of music such as folk, old-time country, bluegrass, modern country, ragtime, blues, and jazz.
However, the banjo has also long been popular in other contemporary popular music worldwide. You can listen to banjo music in local regional idioms of traditional and tradition-based vernacular music such as:
- mento (Jamaica)
- parang (Carriacou)
- quelbe (St. Croix and the Virgin Islands)
- twoubadou kreyol (Haiti)
- samba e pagode (Brazil)
- amarg souss and tazenzart (Morocco)
- chaabi (Algeria)
- ceili (Ireland)
- ceilidh (Scotland)
- faikava (Pule’anga ‘o Tonga [The Kingdom of Tonga], South Pacific)
Before it became the mainstay of American styles of music, the banjo first belonged to the Africans who were the true experts of the instrument. Historians even believe that the early gourd banjo that the African Americans use back then may be traced back to ancient plucked lute from four thousand years ago. Indeed, the banjo instrument has already a rich history before being a representation of American old-time music.
The banjo first appeared in America in the 17th century, back when African slaves were being brought into the country. The African American banjo was adopted by rural white southerners, who then popularized the instrument through minstrel shows of the 1800s. As such, the talk of race is central in banjo history.
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.