Origins of the Banjo

Dinah deSpenza

Oakland Public Conservatory of Music host summer camp featuring the banjo.

Guy de Chalus, banjo teacher at the Oakland Public Conservatory of Music’s (OPC) summer camp, brings storytelling to instill the value of the instrument for cultural preservation and education.

One of 50 known people studying the history of the banjo in the United States, de Chalus embraces its African origins and the old time style of playing.

“As far as I know, there are perhaps one or two others on the west coast that play old time style banjo besides me,” said de Chalus.  “I haven’t seen them in these parts, I’m it.”

He purchased his first banjo for $50 from a man trying to get rid of it because he was moving out of town.

After connecting with a teacher, he eventually linked with other banjo players and scholars who felt the need to discuss the African origin and the black legacy of the banjo.

African — American participation in banjo up through the early period of jazz is significant.

Banjoist Tony Thomas — founder of “Then and Now,” a forum for old-time music players, scholars, and thinkers concerned for the history that pervade the banjo and its music — finds the black legacy of the instrument important to the musical community.

“We needed a place to express the explosion of African — American banjoists,” said Thomas, “including African — American Heritage Elder Etta Baker, Taj Mahal and Rex Ellis, all known in the old-time, blues, classic, and jazz banjo communities.”

Banjo teacher de Chalus talks to his students about people like folklorist Mike Seeger being one of the few enlightened experts who dug deeper into the roots and discovered that African — Americans had a history with the banjo.

The earliest was found in what is today known as Surinam, de Chalus believes.

“The banjo in the American colonies go back as early as the 16th century,” said de Chalus.  “An instrument transplanted by Africans to the Caribbean during the slave trade, it was brought to the United States and transformed through the relationship between blacks and whites in the South.”

“The banjo is different from the guitar, I like that it’s more high pitched,” said Rachel Stovall, a student at OPC.

“I like learning and knowing about the roots of where it came from and that it is native to America. It is history,” said Carolina Gonzalez Navarro, student at OPC.

“I love informing people that it is a native instrument and of it’s origins in Africa,” said fellow OPC student Vinkya Hunter.  “When you tell people you’re learning the banjo, at first they assume you came from a farm or something.  Then after explaining the history they become intrigued, and that makes me feel happy.”

According to de Chalus, musicians create ways to express complex ideas simply. When he teaches his students a song, it comes with a story.

The youth banjo teacher hopes that through these stories, his students will become as interested in the instrument and its history as he has.