In 1841, French abolitionist Victor Schoelcher travelled to Haiti. An avid collector of musical instruments, he left the country carrying several that became part of his personal collection in Paris. Decades later, he donated these instruments to the Musée du Conservatoire de Musique in Paris. This collection was, at some point in the late nineteenth century, boxed up and put into storage, where many of these instruments stayed until 1997, when they were shipped to the new Museum of Music at La Villette.
Though this museum devotes only one room out of its vast space to non-European music, it does at least have a curator of “non-European” instruments, Philippe Bruguière. Part of his job was to go through the crates from the old Musée du Conservatoire that were relocated to the museum. In 1997, while carrying out this work, he found a gourd covered with an animal skin, upon which was written an inscription describing it as a “banza,” the instrument of the “nègres of Haiti.” Soon afterwards, he found the neck of an instrument in another box, and realized the two pieces fit together. The instrument he had re-assembled, he soon realized, was one of a series brought from Haiti by Schoelcher in 1841. (For more on the history of the musical collection this was a part of, and of Schoelcher’s donation, click here).
The re-discovery of this instrument has offered those interested in the history of the banjo a series of vital pieces of information about the construction of the instrument. On this page we discuss the instrument itself, while on the linked pages we offer other information about the history of the banjo/banza in Haiti.
Based on this direct observation and measurement of the original instrument, banjo-maker Pete Ross has been making replicas of the banza, which are available for sale through his company Jubilee banjos. Below is an image of one of these replicas; you can see more on his site.
There are a few textual sources from Haiti that include detailed descriptions about the construction of these instruments. One of these provides one of the most careful descriptions available anywhere of how to build a gourd banjo. In 1810, an ex-planter from Saint-Domingue, Richard de Tussac, published a book entitled Le Cri des Colons. Much of it was written as a refutation of the work of the abolitionist Abbé Grégoire, who had criticized racist attitudes in part by celebrating the musical culture of enslaved people of African descent. An ardent defender of slavery, Tussac responded by arguing that this was absurd, and that the music produced among the slaves was that of “barbarians.” (Richard de Tussac, Cri Des Colons Contre Un Ouvrage De M. L’Eveque Et Senateur Gregoire (Paris: Les Marchands de Nouveautes, 1810), 292). Ironically, though, in order to make his point he offered an enduring testament to the artistry of those who crafted banzas on the plantations:
Quant aux guitares, que les nègres nomment banza, voici en quoi elles consistent : Ils coupent dans sa longueur, et par le milieu, une callebasse franche (c’est le fruit d’un arbre que l’on nomme callebassier). Ce fruit a quelquefois huit pouces et plus de diamètre. Ils étendent dessus une peau de cabrit, qu’ils assujettisent autour des bords avec des petits cloux; ils font deux petits trous sur cette surface, ensuite une espèce de latte ou morceau de bois grossièrement aplati, constitue la manche de la guittarre ; ils tendent dessus trois cordes de pitre (espèce de filasse tirée de l’agave, vulgairement pitre); l‘instrument construit. Ils jouent sur cet instrument des airs composés de trois ou quatre notes, qu’ils répètent sans cesse ; voici ce que l’évêque Grégoire appelle une musique sentimentale, mélancolique ; et ce que nous appelons une musique de sauvages.
As for the guitars, which the negroes call banzas, this is what they consist of: they cut lengthwise, through the middle, a fresh calabash (the fruit of a tree called the callebassier). This fruit is sometimes eight inches or more in diameter. The stretch across it the skin of a goat, which they attach on the edges with little nails; they put two or three little holes on this surface, and then a kind of plank or piece of wood that is rudely flattened makes the neck of the instrument; they stretch three strings made of pitre (a kind of string taken from the agave plant, commonly known as pitre) across it; and so the instrument is built. On this instrument they play airs composed of three or four notes, which they repeat constantly. This is what Grégoire calls a sentimental, melancholy music, and what we call the music of savages.
Another contemporary, the naturalist Michel-Etienne Descourtilz, offered details about the instrument in volume 5 of his multi-volume work Flore pittoresque des Antilles, published in the 1820s but based on a visit to Haiti during the early 1800s. His description of the banjo shows up as part of his examination of the “courge calebasse.” From these calabashes, he notes, the “Creoles and Blacks” of the Caribbean created dishes as well as “des banza, instrument nègre, que les Noirs préparent en sciant une de ces Calebasses ou une grosse Gourde dans toute sa longueur, et à laquelle ils ajustent un manche et des cordes sonores faites avec la filasse” from aloe plants. (English translation: “banzas, a Negro instrument, that the Blacks prepare by sawing one of the calabashes or a large gourd lengthwise, to which they attach a neck and sonorous strings made from the filament” of aloe plants.) (Michel Etienne Descourtilz, Flore Pittoresque Et Médicale Des Antilles, vol. 5 (Paris: Imprimerie de J. Tastu, 1833), 85–86.)
Though, like Tussac, Descourtilz doesn’t seem to like the banjo very much, he does recognize its cultural importance:
Cet instrument, quoique peu harmonieux, plait aux Noirs qui en font une espèce de mandoline avec laquelle ils charment leurs ennuis en accompagnant leurs voix pendant la paix des nuits, ou en faisant danser leurs camarades aux fêtes joyeuses, et à celles plus lugubres des calendas, cérémonies funéraires suivies de festins. On a coutume d’associer au son du banza celui plus bruyant du bamboula, espèce de tambour qu’ils font résonner avec leurs doigts et les poignets, en se mettant à cheval dessus. Ce tambour est fait avec une tige de Bambou recouvert des deux côtés d’une peau.
This instrument, although it produces little harmony, pleases the Blacks, who make of it a kind of mandolin which which they lessen their boredom and accompany their voices in the peace of the night, or else make the comrades dance during joyful parties or during the more lugubrious calendas, funerary rituals followed by revelry. It is the custom of combining the sound of the banza with that more noisy one of the bamboula, a kind of drum that they play with their fingers and knuckles while sitting astride it. This drum is made with from a stick of bamboo covered on both sides with a skin.
We don’t learn much about the musicians or instrument-makers from these sources, unfortunately. However, we can glean a few enticing details from a manuscript produced a few decades after the Haitian Revolution, a French diplomat named Gaspard-Théodore Mollien. Part history and part memoir, it offers descriptions of the vanished live of the planter class. Mollien, for instance, briefly describes a rather remarkable party that he claims took place on a plantation in the years before the Revolution. (Gaspard-Théodore Mollien, Histoire Et Mœurs d’Haïti: De Christophe Colomb á La Révolte Des Esclaves, ed. François Arzalier, vol. 1 (Paris: Le Serpent de Mer, 2001), 84):
On avait même vu une esclave de l’habitation Lefeuve, maîtresse du procureur, donner à la Saint-Louis un repas de 400 couverts, servi en vaisselle plate et égayé par les chants des chanteurs publics, Trois-Feuilles et Grand Simone, dont les banzas (guitares) étaient garnis de doublons.
There was even a case where the slave of the Lafeuve plantation, the mistress of the plantation manager, held — on the feast of Saint-Louis — a dinner with 400 plates, served on flatware, and enlivened by the songs of the public singers Three Leaves and Grande Simone, whose banzas (guitars) were garnished with doubloons.
Among the various details offered here, one is perhaps most important: the name of one of the singers, Trois-Feuilles, which immediately brings to mind a crucial and symbolic song that is part of the corpus of Haitian Vodou. It is a song that is about tradition and memory. You can hear a contemporary version of this (played in the Haitian troubadour music style, which includes banjo) below.
The main lyrics are as follows:
Jeté blyé ranmassé songé
Which can be translated:
If I throw them down I forget
If I gather them I remember