Part 2:
The Banjo’s Roots

The Caribbean was the North American center of the slave trade in the 1600s.
Rhiannon’s first discovery was that the banjo was born from one of world
history’s most cataclysmic events — the transatlantic slave trade.

“The banjo was invented by African enslaved people in the Caribbean.”

Africans from all these different areas were brought over against their will to the Caribbean and they’re all put together, no rhyme, no reason. It’s important to talk about this history, there was no monolithic experience of an enslaved person.

There were so many different cultures, languages, musical traditions, you could be surrounded by folks that you couldn’t communicate with. And immediately the culture begins there, with learning how to communicate when you don’t know how to do it, music became a way to come together.

So, that’s the very beginning of this instrument.

The banjo was invented by African enslaved people in the Caribbean. No instrument exists in a vacuum, there’s always something that comes beforehand, and in Africa, particularly West Africa, there are loads of instruments that we call the ancestors to the banjo.


So, they’re similar shaped instruments and similar ways that they’re made, gourd instruments, lute instruments, there’s large, long ones called butchundu. There’s small ngonis. In the Caribbean, you have gourds, you have animal skin, you have wood, so they could make something that’s familiar. You have this sort of amalgamation of, of these kinds of instruments and something that’s starting to be called the banjo, the banza, the banjar, so this is the oldest style that I have in my collection. It’s very very close to the African ancestors to the banjo. So It’s very similar to the gourd banjo that was the first, kind of, phase that the banjo went through when it was created. So you see the gourd here, so this would be grown and then chopped in half, scooped out and then put in the sun.

I’m going to play a little something called Coromantee, and it’s one of the earliest tunes we have.


What did the banjo inherit from its ancestors?

Hover over the different elements of the banjo to discover which earlier West African instruments contributed to its structure.

Rhiannon’s next discovery about the banjo would introduce her
to a whole genre of music she didn’t even know existed.

Continue to Part 3

An American Sound — The Black String Band