Beginnings and Development
An African instrument, introduced to the United States in the 17th century.
There are a variety of banjo-like instruments in Africa, but one in particular, the Akonting is prevalent in Gambia and Senegal. It is an instrument made from a section of a calabash gourd, with a stick through the front and back. The gourd section has a skin (often goat) stretched over it, and strings are made to run from friction tuning pegs at one end and tied to the other. They pass over a wooden bridge located on the skin head. There are 4 strings - the 4th being shorter than the other three. There are no frets on the stick, which is made from the local bamboo called 'bangoe'. The method of playing is called 'auteek' which means to knock the strings and is a very similar style to what we would call clawhammer.
The development of the banjo
The first slaves among many to be transported to the United States were from this 'Senegambia' region of West Africa. The first report of this instrument was in 1620 from the captain of a ship on the Gambia river - Richard Jobson. Slave owners realised that music kept the slaves more content after their wrench from home, and made sure that local musicians were transported with their instruments.
Of all the types of banjo-like instruments that exist in Africa and the East, this is the one that was destined to become the forerunner of the modern banjo. Heard all over not only the plantations of the South and also in the North, the Black African instrument became a part of American culture.
By the 1820s, the white Americans were copying black performers for entertainment, even to the extent of 'blacking up' ........ The first 'blackface' performers were seen as early as 1769 though