renan banjos
handmade in Richmond, VA
Banjo Origins

The origin of the banjo is the plucked Spiked Lute of West Africa

The Spiked Lute has a drum-like body made of gourd, an animal hide is stretched over the top creating the soundboard. The neck features a fretless round pole that extends the entire length of the body to the tail end of the gourd. A moveable floating bridge sits over the head. The strings are attached to the end of the pole (tailpiece), strung over the bridge and attached to sliding tuning rings made of leather or cloth, looped around the neck.


Winians, Robert. Banjo Roots and Branches (Urbana: University of Illinois Press) 2018. pp23.

The Banjo we know today is directly related to the transatlantic slave trade.

The banjo is a interculturation of European and West African Traditions

The earliest known documentation of a gourd Banjo was an illustration by a White British Doctor, Sir Hans Sloane in Jamaica, 1687. Sloane observed enslaved blacks played "several sorts of Instruments in imitation of Lutes, made of small Gourds fitted with Necks".

Winians, Robert. Banjo Roots and Branches (Urbana: University of Illinois Press) 2018. pp 8

This early gourd banjo features:

  • gourd body

  • animal hide soundboard

  • carved wooden neck with a flat fretless    fingerboard

  • wooden tuning pegs

Sloane's Illustration, Instruments, 1707

 (Image Source: SLOANE2, From Sir Hans Sloane's "A Voyage to the Islands of Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christopher and Jamaica" (1707).

The 17th Century Caribbean gourd banjo is a synthesis of West African & Spanish Lute instruments 

 and emerged from the transatlantic slave trade.

West African Lutes (halam, xalam, houdou, tinbit, and ngoni)

Spanish Lutes (vihuela de mano, guitar, tiple and cavaquinho)

Transatlantic Slave trade was initiated by Portugeuse & Spanish Empires upon settlement of Sugar Plantations in Americas. European planters grew sugar cane, cultivated by enslaved Africans on plantations in Brazil and later Barbadoes.

The Caribbean Islands served as a central hub for importing and exporting enslaved Africans to Atlantic shipping ports in the North, Central and Southern Americas.

Lasting 366 years, European Slavers loaded 12.5 million peoples on African Slave ships. The British Empire began exporting African slaves to North America by 1619, at that point their were already half a million enslaved Africans in Brazil.

The British entered prominence in 17th century and shipped 1 million Africans to Jamaica, half a million to Barbados before ruling slavery trading illegal in 1807.
Slavery proved essential to the development of political, economic and diplomatic success of the British empire.
Slavery and Rememberance, A guide to Sites, Museums and Memory: Transatlantic Slave Trade. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. 2020 Accessed September 15,2020
"After years of depending upon voluntary servitude, Virginia planters switched to involuntary slavery based on race. They imported large numbers of African slaves. At first these slaves came from plantations in the West Indies, but by the late 18th century, they came directly from Africa, and busy slave markets were established in Philadelphia, Richmond, Charleston, and New Orleans."

History of American Women: Slavery in Virginia., Accessed September, 17, 2020


'The Old Plantation', c. 1785-1790, South Carolina (The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Colonial Williamsburg)

'The Old Plantation' is the oldest known period portrayal of African American music and dance in North America.

First depiction of the gourd banjo with structural defining features:
  • Short Thumb String
  • Distinctive Neck through body structure (full spike construction) *links gourd banjo to full-spike Lutes of West African heritage
  • Carved Wooden Neck with flat fretless fingerboard
  • Tuning Pegs
  • Decorative Sound Holes
  • Floating 2-footed Bridge
  • Nut
  • Separate leather tailpiece

Pestcoe, Shlomo. "The Banjar Pictured: The Depiction of the African American Early Gourd Banjo in The Old Plantation, South Carolina, 1780s" "Banjo Roots and Branches, edited by Robert Winians, University of  Illinois Press, 2018, pp172-193

"After going to bed I was entertained with an agreeable serenade by a black man who had his stand near the tavern, and for the amusement of those of his color, sung and played on the Banjoe [sic]. He appeared to be quite adept on this African instrument, which 'tho it may not bear a comparison with the guitar, is certainly capable of conveying much pleasure to a musical ear..."

Fairfax, Thomas. "Notes on the State of Virginia; Written in the Year 1781" "Banjo: An Illustrated History, edited by Bob Carlin, Backbeat Books, 2016, pp20

under construction... 

We can't talk about The Banjo and not talk about racism.