This event took place at the Museum of the American Revolution (www.amrevmuseum.org) in Philadelphia, on August 10-11, 2019. I made it down for the second day and enjoyed meeting and learning from the people from Handshouse Studio (www.handshouse.org). They made the instruments, a few of which you see here, and are very well-versed in their construction, use, and history. The project is an amazing glimpse into the lives of enslaved people in the US, and more proof that people will find ways to make music, no matter where they go and who they are.
The gourds were grown, dried, cleaned out, and cut to shape. The necks, made from whatever wood could be found, extend through the gourd and bear the tension of the (likely gut, possibly made from vines) strings. The number of strings varied, and not much is known about their tuning. Bridges are wood and rest on goatskin heads. The cutout shapes were both soundholes and decorations. The sound is soft, and nothing like the modern banjo. Still, the African roots of the banjo are clear and unmistakeable.
Thanks to the MoAR and Handshouse for an inspiring morning! Here is their description, below. I missed Jake Blount’s performance on the Saturday, but you can find his music online (https://jakeblount.com), along with performances by Adam Hurt on his album Earth Tones. Great stuff!
“Join the Handshouse Studio on Saturday, August 10 and Sunday, August 11, as they present The Banjo Project, a hands-on display of gourd banjos and the process of making them. The early gourd banjo is an object with a history in the Americas that dates back to the 17th-century. Having evolved from knowledge of West African instruments brought to the western hemisphere by the forced migration of peoples during the slave trade, these guard banjos are the beginnings of the culturally iconic sounds of the hoop banjos that are more commonly known throughout the world today. The sounds of these early banjos were resonating along the Eastern seaboard in the hands of enslaved Africans and African Americans at the time of the American Revolution, and their songs are embedded in the stories of race, labor, and class throughout American History. This special hands-on display will feature early gourd banjo replicas to touch and strum, examples of the raw materials that early gourd banjos would have been assembled from, live demonstrations of the processes used to make parts of the gourd banjo and how the instruments might have been played. On Saturday, August 10 at 2 p.m., listen to the sounds of early gourd banjo music with a special performance by banjoist and fiddler Jake Blount in the Museum’s Liberty Hall. This special performance is free with Museum admission.”