AMIS 2022: What is an Early Banjo? An Exploration of an Instrument’s Relationship to Organology and Ethnomusicology

The American Musical Instrument Society (AMIS) promotes better understanding of all aspects of the history, design, construction, restoration, and usage of musical instruments in all cultures and from all periods. In June 2022, their annual meeting was held at Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre.

What is an Early Banjo? An Exploration of an Instrument’s Relationship to Organology and Ethnomusicology
Kristina Gaddy and Pete Ross

Kristina Gaddy is the author of the forthcoming Well of Souls: Uncovering the Banjo’s Hidden History (W. W. Norton, 2022) and holds an MFA in Nonfiction Writing. She has presented at the Anton de Kom University, Suriname; North Carolina Folk Festival; and Banjo Gathering. Her work appears in international, national, and local publications, and before writing, she worked in museums and historical societies.

Pete Ross is a banjo maker, researcher, and musician. He is one of earliest contemporary makers of gourd banjos, ranging from those of his own design to exact replicas of historic instruments. His reconstructions of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century banjos have been featured internationally in museums, art galleries, movies, documentaries, and live performances. His essay “The Haitian Banza and the American Banjo Lineage” appears in the Bessaraboff Prize-winning collection Banjo Roots and Branches (University of Illinois Press, 2018).

This presentation outlines the organological characteristics of early banjos—pre-industrial gourd- and calabash-bodied instruments. It also analyzes whether organology alone can determine if an instrument is a banjo or to what extent we must consider an instrument’s provenance, usage, and cultural context. Using seven images of early banjos and the three confirmed extant instruments, we outline the organological characteristics shared across early banjos, and how those characteristics differ from known African instruments. We also discuss the known cultural context of the banjo, which was created by people of African descent in the Americas and used as accompaniment for ritual dance. Finally, we introduce a newly rediscovered instrument from a collection at the Musée des Confluences in Lyon, a watercolor at the British Museum of an instrument once held at the Leverian Museum, and a watercolor from St. Domingue, and we explore whether by using organological characteristics alone we can conclusively say that these three newly discovered sources can be called early banjos.

Watch more videos from the 2022 AMIS Conference here.