Banjo Query

Western Sudan: it’s a long way to Jamaica…

Anyone interested in the early history of the banjo eventually comes across the drawing attributed to Sir Hans Sloane. “A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S Christophers and Jamaica…,” is referred to as the Natural History or, simply, the History. Volume 1 was published in 1707, Volume 2 not until 1725. His account of life in Jamaica during his visit from 1687 to 1689 contains the earliest, and best, depictions of gourd banjos in the New World. Two similar instruments are shown along with an arched harp of square shape. The picture is clear and striking but I have never seen the book and have never read an account of what, if anything, Sloane had to say about the illustration. Somewhere in his writings, all agree, he referred to an instrument, the “strum-strum,” played by the natives. [See Note at bottom of page.]

This picture is from “Oriental Studies: Mainly Musical,” a book by Henry George Farmer published in 1953, containing articles published in the previous decade. It seems to be an original drawing and is clearly the same illustration, though in reverse. (It was common for drawings to be reversed in the engraving process.) I found a copy of it in the early 1960s, before I had seen the Sloane, and was taken with the “excellent delineations” of the instruments which, Farmer believed, belonged to the Western Sudan. The plate was attributed to a manuscript in the British Museum (Add.5324, fol.75) dated 1701.
There is a curious ambiguity about his attribution, however. “It shows excellent delineations of three African string instruments, a harp and two pandores, all of which, I believe, belong to the Western Sudan. Even if they do not at all belong to this region they are still of sufficient interest to be given publicity, not only because of the precise measurements with which each instrument is accompanied but because they are probably the earliest examples of African musical instruments which have been delineated.” Unfortunately, Farmer is silent about the nature of manuscript Add.5324. If this was the Sloane ms, from which the book was published, it seems Farmer would have said: these “pandores” look very much like those found in the Western Sudan. On the other hand, if this ms is something else then it calls into question the authenticity of the Sloane attribution. It was not uncommon, in earlier times, for authors to liberally “borrow” from others in their works.
In the meantime, the measurements (which can be seen written on the instruments) are very interesting. The oval-bodied instrument is 23 1/2″ long and the soundchest is 5 1/3″ wide. The round-bodied instrument is 21 1/2″ long with a 5″ wide soundchest. The harp, in case anyone is curious, is 36″ long. The soundchest is 10″ long, 3 3/4″ wide, and 4 1/2″ deep. The vertical bridge, which carries 8 strings, is 3″ high.

The solution to the quandry is, clearly, for someone to ascertain “what is BM ms Add.5324?”
Follow-up: according to the British Library, where the BM mss are now located, Add.5324 is “Phoebe, a pastoral drama, set to music by Dr Greene.” Clearly, not very banjoistic. Stay tuned.

Note: Names are always a problem when local, oral people are asked by foreign, literate visitors for information. Issues of power, privacy, and self-protection, not to mention mishearing and misunderstanding, can work against accurate transmission. Was the instrument actually called a “strum-strum?” Was that the man’s personal name for That instrument? Was he telling the wealthy White Man what he wanted to hear? “Yes, Boss, it’s nothing, just something we poor, ignorant folks strum-strum on.” And whose name was “merrywang?” It certainly doesn’t sound like an African word, and if in a creole, the merry part is understandable but what was intended by wang. (It’s not in the OED.) Yet some still act as if it were fact: “Are you building a merrywang or a strum-strum?

The same problems arise even when clear information IS given. When my hypothetical Urban traveller asked the early Country banjer player what he called his instrument, he was told “banjer,” but “corrected” it. “These people say ‘yaller’ instead of yellow, ‘tater’ for potato, ‘mater’ for tomato, therefore when they say ‘banjer’ it must properly be banjo.”

I had divined this many years ago but only later found an (almost exact) early proof. The Loyalist Reverend Jonathan Boucher observed that, in Maryland and Virginia, the “favorite and almost only instrument in use among the slaves there was a bandore [an obsolete classical instrument], or, as they pronounced the word, banjer.” Notice that, when he heard “banjer,” he didn’t know that word, so searched for a known English word which, he was certain, the speaker had intended. What if the speaker had said, “akonting?” Unable to find anything similar in English (or am I not looking hard enough?) he might have concluded: an African name. But “banjer” WAS close to an English musical instrument, however obscure, so he chose it.

[The Original Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1771, defines “bandora” as “an ancient musical instrument, with strings, resembling a lute.” So Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary gives “bandore” (from the Spanish “bandurria,” Greek “pandora”) as “a musical instrument, like a lute.”]