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Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Book Review: “Well of Souls: Uncovering the Banjo’s Hidden History” by Kristina R. Gaddy

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One dollar.

That’s not a lot of cash when it’s your turn to pick the tunes and you want to hear your song now. Just a buck for the juke box and everybody can enjoy what you’ve chosen. That’s not a lot for four minutes of entertainment, especially when, as in the new book “Well of Souls” by Kristina R. Gaddy, it features your favorite instrument.

In 1687, the English slave ship, the Benjamin, left the coast of Loango with a cargo of 375 adults and children headed for Jamaica and lives of slavery. Three hundred sixty-nine people arrived but not with much, if anything at all – and yet, says Gaddy, like their fellow slaves in the Islands and northward, they brought new “cultures that would become foundational to every colony and country they lived in.” Shortly after the Benjamin arrived, some noticed that when the slaves had a bit of free time, they spent it dancing and making music, sometimes with a gourd impaled by a stick, a bit of animal skin, and strings to pluck. Though the instruments closely resembled lutes and were called “mbanza” in the Kimbudu language, white men called them “Strum Strumps” and the fascination was such that Strum Strumps were taken to England, and collected.

The instrument made its way to Martinique, where it was refined with better strings. It went to Barbados, where it was called a bangil. When it arrived in France, it became “the bangeau,” but in America, it was quickly becoming “an uncouth Black-originated instrument of little worth” that slaves used for celebrations and funerals, though whites remained intrigued by it.

“Whenever the instrument had arrived in Louisiana,” says Gaddy, referring to the early 1800s, “it would soon transform again.”

c.2022, W.W. Norton


284 pages

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