Spirit of the Banjo: Resilience x Tradition

The 18th-century painting, The Old Plantation, includes a man playing a gourd banjo decorated with religious symbols. John Rose http://hitchcock.itc.virginia.edu/SlaveTrade/collection/large/NW01, via Wikimedia Commons


The banjo is an instantly recognizable sound that has become synonymous with American folk music, a genre traditionally associated with white musicians. However, the banjo was originally created by enslaved Africans and their descendants in the Caribbean and North America, widely recognized as an African American tradition with a West African heritage. The banjo heard in American music is a distinct blend of West African and European cultures that widely differs from the West African banjo sound. On this episode of cultureXchanges, we speak with Kristina Gaddy to uncover the history of the banjo and how its sound has developed as a result of cultural exchange. Ms. Gaddy is a Baltimore-based writer and the author of Well of Souls: Uncovering the Banjo’s Hidden History.

Episode Transcript

Hello and welcome to cultureXchanges, a podcast at the intersection of the humanities and cultural diplomacy. I’m your host Terry Harvey, Vice President of the Meridian Center for Cultural Diplomacy. This podcast series explores the impact of the arts and culture on diplomatic relations across the world through discussions with cultural diplomacy experts.  

On this episode of cultureXchanges, we speak with Kristina Gaddy to uncover the history of the banjo and how its sound has developed as a result of cultural exchange. The banjo was originally created by enslaved Africans and their descendants in the Caribbean and North America, widely recognized as an African American tradition with a West African heritage. However, the banjo heard in American music is a distinct blend of West African and European cultures that widely differs from the West African banjo sound. Ms. Gaddy is a Baltimore-based writer and the author of Well of Souls: Uncovering the Banjo’s Hidden History.  

She has received the Parsons Award from the Library of Congress, a Logan Nonfiction Fellowship, and a Robert W. Deutsch Foundation Rubys artist award. She graduated from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County with degrees in History and Modern Languages and holds an MFA in Nonfiction Writing from Goucher College. 

TK Harvey – Hi, Kristina. Thank you for joining us. We really look forward to diving into this subject matter into more detail. I thought for our audience, we could first start with you giving us a glimpse into the early history of the banjo, when and where it was created, and how was it constructed.

Kristina Gaddy – Sure, thanks so much for having me. I really love focusing on the early history of the banjo cause I think that’s the part of its history that often gets kind of pushed to the side and forgotten. So, the earliest examples of the banjo that we have, both the physical examples and the images and descriptions, are from the Caribbean. One of the earliest descriptions and the earliest image comes from Jamaica in 1687 and that comes from a book by a man named Sir Han Sloan, who is a British doctor, and he actually collected these two banjos and brought them back to England. But since 1687, somewhere in the in between, they’ve been lost, which is really sad that we don’t have that material culture to kind of examine, but he did put a plate, an engraving plate in his book that he published about his time in Jamaica and the Caribbean. And there we see how it was constructed and that is basically the same form that it takes all the way until it gets a more modern form than we think of today with a wooden rim body. Those banjos had gourd or calabash bodies, which is not like a pumpkin that gets soft when it gets old, but it actually gets hard and makes a really nice resonating chamber and that makes the body of the instrument. And then they had necks that were made of wood. They had flat fingerboards like a guitar. They had tuning pegs like a guitar. They had short and long strings, though, which is something that we see on African instruments, and then they had a what’s called a soundboard, which is basically the top of the instrument. Guitars, violins, cellos, all those European string family instruments generally have wooden sound boards, but African instruments have skin, many African instruments or some that have wood sound boards, but many African instruments have the skin soundboard. And that is how this early banjo was constructed with many different elements of African instruments, but not replicating one single African instrument.

TK Harvey – Yeah, it’s really fascinating how just the basic materials that banjos are made of have a cross cultural story in itself. So the history of the banjos is not just the Black American one, right, but one of the greater African diaspora. Can you speak about the global exchange that led to its creation? It just sounds like so many influences were brought into the creation of the banjo.

Kristina Gaddy – Absolutely, we think of the banjos being this kind of quintessential American instrument and then beginning, I think, to understand that it has these African roots. But I love to look beyond kind of the modern borders that we have today even though the borders of mainland United States we think of as having been settled for a really long time, that’s not necessarily the case and there was so much global exchange that happened that I really think the body is the banjo embodies. So, we have these West African instruments, for example, a lot of people are familiar with the akonting when we talk about banjo history, but there are many different African ethnic groups and cultures that have instruments that are similar and we see a lot of those instruments kind of having direct attributes that the early banjos have but we also see East African instruments that have similarities to the banjo. So a lot of folks think of the flat fingerboard and the tuning peg because having like must have originated in in European influence in the banjo, but of course North African instruments have tuning pegs and flat fingerboards and then East African instruments where there were also people who were taken from East Africa and Madagascar, that kind of Indian Ocean region, were enslaved there and either taken from those East African ports, but sometimes if they their home was a little bit inland, they could have even been forcibly transported across the African continent to Central African ports. And so, they also had musical traditions that we can’t kind of deny would have had an influence.

In this early cultural forest, cultural mixing in the Caribbean and then the other thing that we always think about is we have the United States and it most of always been the United States, but we look at places like Charleston, South Carolina that was founded by colonizers from the Caribbean and their laws were very similar to Caribbean laws and their culture, one would argue, is much more closely tied to that of Caribbean British colonies than it was of, let’s say, Massachusetts colonies. And we have places like New Orleans, which of course was French and Spanish before it became part of the United States and within this movement of not only goods and people, we have the forcible moving of enslaved people of African descent whether that’s because they’re being sold from the Caribbean in a port like Charleston, in a port like Annapolis, Maryland, and even in a port like Providence, Rhode Island, or New Orleans. There’s also lots of global things that happen. We have the Haitian Revolution, which creates not only White refugees who feel that they have to flee the island or get rid of their personal property, which includes enslaved people, but free people of color who leave Haiti as well and bring with their enslaved people and settle in places like Maryland or Virginia or New Orleans, where they can keep that property. So, we really have a huge global exchange, not only between Africa and the Americas, but within the Americas that not only leads to the creation of the banjo, but African American music, which I would argue that leads to the creation of kind of what we call “American Music” today.

TK Harvey – Yeah, that’s right. And, speaking further on that in your book, I’m curious in the ways in which you had to balance discussing the horrors of slavery alongside the creativity and cultural resiliency of the enslaved and their descendants. I wonder if you could speak to that.

Kristina Gaddy –Yeah, this is a really important question because one of the things that I didn’t want to do in writing this history was traumatize or re-traumatize any readers and discussing the realities of the horrors of slavery does invoke trauma. There are things that you truly don’t want to read about, or really upsetting to read about and I think that those are important for us to remember. But I also didn’t want to make that a barrier for people to read it where they thought, if I’m reading this, I’m exposing myself to that trauma and I don’t want to experience that, I want to experience the resiliency of religion and spirituality, of overtime, of music, of invention, of Black creation, and resistance to the enslaved. I actually have a couple of footnotes where I say directly, I’m kind of not describing what this person did or this situation in full and here’s, if you choose, here’s the resource to go look at that. But at the same time, it’s really important for us to remember that the history of the United States, the history of the banjo, the history of American Music, that is essentially a history of slavery and oppressing people of African descent, and we can’t learn about the history of the banjo without learning about slavery and how it functioned. We can’t learn the history of the United States without learning about slavery and how it functioned. So, even though I have that caveat of not trying to be grotesque with the descriptions of slavery, it’s important that that is always there as an undercurrent in the book and the discussion of banjo history.

TK Harvey – Yeah, and you touched on the next question briefly there, but one of the larger themes that you captured so beautifully in the book is the spirituality of this instrument. What is the link between religion, spirituality and the banjo?

Kristina Gaddy –Yeah, this is the big reason that I wrote the book, because we always think of the banjo as being a secular instrument, that because today we use them in secular settings for dances, for entertainment, that that must always have been the case. But of course, if dig into African cultures in a in a general sense, but then also specifically digging into African music, you see that it’s very often connected with religion and spirituality. And so, when we come back to, for example, and some of the West African cultures that have been studied in in close relationship with the banjo. We see that the religious aspect, the musical aspect of religion I should say, is really important and this is of course then transferred as we get new forms of religion and spirituality in the Americas. In this creolization of cultures where there are elements from Islam in West Africa, voodoo in what is today Benin, in Catholicism from Central Africa in the Congo. That’s already been kind of mixed with traditional beliefs there and those things coming together in the Americas and in the United States is really fascinating and that’s where the banjo was a central part. These religions like Voodoo, Winti in Surinam, and even Obeah in Jamaica. We’re very connected to music and dance, and the music that accompanied these ritual dances was the banjo and drums. And the banjo and drums together along with singing and maybe other rhythm instruments could invoke spirits, could invoke ancestors, could invoke gods, and invite them down to be part of this ceremony with the practitioners.

And that was something that I am looking back over the scholarship of the banjo especially was something that people hadn’t been able to kind of see because the primary sources which were written by White European or European descended men, couldn’t see themselves. They had a very Western European view of what religion and spirituality looked like and to them, the idea that you would be dancing, playing the banjo, singing didn’t connect with what their idea of a religion was. And so, when they wrote their accounts of these religions, these dances, and this music, they didn’t make that connection except in the few instances where those men were religious figures themselves. So, one of the stories that I talk about in the book is a Moravian missionary from Germany who is in Surinam, the colony formerly Dutch Guiana, who destroys instruments, who takes a banjo, who destroys religious idols associated with the Winti religion that the banjos are part of, because he sees that as an impediment to the enslaved becoming Moravians and accepting Jesus Christ as their God. And to have him see that was really eye opening to me because it kind of really solidified this that idea that I had that these were religious spiritual dances and the banjo is part of it, but here was somebody who’s who really thought the banjo is so dangerous because it’s a part of this religion that I have to take it away from these people in order to try to save their souls.

TK Harvey – Wow, that is that is powerful anecdote. I guess. Speaking more broadly, I would love to hear your thoughts on, on really the contributions the banjo has made on music. I know that’s a pretty broad statement for a pretty broad question but would love to hear your thoughts.

Kristina Gaddy –Yeah, I think the other, the other big thing is that the kind of transfer that we have from the banjo being a Black instrument, if you will, an instrument primarily played by people of African descent in the Americas to being something that we associate with White America and White music, and that’s really something that begins to happen in the 1840s with the explosion of Blackface minstrelsy, where White men would paint their faces Black and pretend to be African American in a way that was derogatory and lampooning of African American music, speech patterns, ways of dressing the whole thing was intended as comedy, in a hurtful way. And that is really the first pop-music craze of the United States. It is the first musical export, and probably the first cultural export from the United States to the rest of the world.

These Blackface minstrel troops are not only extremely popular in the United States, but they travel to England, to Ireland, other places on the European continent, to South Africa, to Australia, to Japan, and really make the music of minstrelsy a global phenomenon and the banjo is central to that Blackface minstrel show because the banjo was so identified as being a Black instrument, it becomes a prop that the Blackface minstrels used to demonstrate their “Blackness” on stage. And so, we get not only the kind of first pop music, the first American Music export, but we also get the banjo going around the world as being this American musical form. So, I really think that from the beginning of the idea of what is “American Music”, quotes around American Music, we have the banjo as a central part of that.

I want to add that even though minstrelsy was this pretty ugly export from the United States, there were Black Americans who performed minstrel songs and minstrel music, and this international craze actually gave them an opportunity to travel internationally as professional musicians and dancers.

And so then it’s not the steps, they’re not even leaps, the steps after that of having the banjo in other Great American musical export of jazz in having people all over the world be attracted to American country music, even if they’re living in rural parts of far-flung countries having this sense of connection to what they believe is the kind of longing that that American country music brings the banjo is still very central to the creation of country music, so the ultimate argument is that we wouldn’t have these kind of that we wouldn’t have American Music to export around the world if we didn’t have the banjo. But of course, it comes from that very dark, pretty ugly place of the Blackface minstrel show to have created that first export.

TK Harvey – Yeah, fascinating and I guess well I’ll leave you with this final question. I’m sure you addressed this a lot with people that you need and obviously you’re an expert in this field so  imagine a lot of folks get a lot of people get are quite wrong when discussing the history of the banjo and sort of what would be your major sort of teaching moment for folks who don’t know anything about the origins, is it in fact that it does come from a an African or Afro Caribbean origins. So, what would you say is the most the one thing that people get wrong the most when it comes to the history of the banjo?

Kristina Gaddy – Oh, that’s a hard one! I do think a lot of folks say the banjo is African. Which I think, I think that statement can be true, the banjo is African, right? As is many African instruments. But the thing that’s wrong to say is the banjo is from Africa since it’s fundamentally this creation of the African diaspora, as you said earlier, and created in the Americas by people of African descent. But then I also think that we like to imagine a world in which Racism and White supremacy have not played the fundamental role that they have played in the creation of our country and so we also imagine a world in which it’s 1750 in Maryland and there’s a poor White man and an enslaved Black man playing the banjo together and fundamental misunderstanding not only of the banjo and its purpose within Black religion and spirituality, but also the idea that that kind of cultural exchange was something that was normal. And it’s not to say that there couldn’t have been instances of that type of interaction, but that’s not fundamentally kind of where our history lies and where this musical history and this musical interaction happens.

TK Harvey – In a lot of ways, the Banjos served as an early example of the culture tool for cultural diplomacy. And in a lot of ways, which is fascinating.

Kristina Gaddy – Yeah, and I do, I mean, I do think that the that there’s a really interesting coming back to the kind of export of Blackface minstrel shows. Again, absolutely awful and terrible as an art form, but at the same time this was bringing a cultural form to the world from the United States in a way that kind of said like the United States has arrived where we’re a global force now and there is a lot, I think, more research and more thought to be done and put into, especially how those Blackface minstrel shows interacted with the campaigns for abolition both in the United States but also in British Caribbean colonies as well. There was a real fascination and interest with the Blackface minstrel shows in Ireland especially. And just kind of thinking of, and in Australia as well actually, and thinking about how those populations who were themselves kind of being colonized by the British reacted to this art form is also something that’s very fascinating.

TK Harvey – Wow, really incredible. I want to congratulate you on your new book. I want to thank you for joining us for this podcast series and helping our audience understand the subject matter a little bit more. So, thank you very much.

Kristina Gaddy – Thank you, guys, so much for having me.

Thank you for joining us today on cultureXchanges, a podcast that examines the impact of cultural diplomacy, in its many forms, on global relations. We’d like to thank the National Endowment for the Humanities for funding this podcast, our guest on this episode for taking the time to share their expertise, our podcast editor Ed Bishop, and our listeners for taking the time to engage in the world of cultural diplomacy. 

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