The banjo (its city name), or banjer (its traditional country name) is often thought of as a uniquely American musical instrument. And that is true, as far as it goes. But, like almost everything that wasn’t already here before the Europeans landed, its origins lie elsewhere. When Africans were brought to the New World as slaves, they brought the knowledge of a wide variety of instruments with a neck and a body covered with skin. While there were similar ancient instruments elsewhere in the world, it is clear that the African pattern, especially the akonting, from the area of Senegal and the Gambia—even its style of playing—was the inspiration for the evolution of the banjo. The most likely crucible for such development was the Caribbean: the earliest observers and extant examples come from there. One of the distinctive marks of the instrument was the short, high-pitched string played as an intermittent drone.
Early chroniclers in the United States included Thomas Jefferson, who characterized it as a distinctive instrument of the slaves in Virginia. Somewhere along the way European influences such as tuning pegs and a flat fingerboard were added. Probably for practical reasons, the usual gourd-bodied construction was superseded by a drum-like shell and transformed into its modern form; early 19th century instruments are clearly recognizable as the banjo as we now know it.
Follow these links to see videos of musicians playing a modern gourd banjo & fiddle, the author playing a small gourd banjo of his own making, the akonting (the banjo’s most likely ancestor), and the ngoni, another West African instrument.
— Curt Bouterse, Ph.D. is a member of the Center for World Music’s Advisory Board, and is a historical scholar, organologist, traditional musician, and instrument maker widely respected for his deep knowledge of Early and Medieval Music, World Music, and American Folk Music.