Stringed Musical Instruments, Jamaica, 1687-1688

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This record was last updated on 09 Jul 2011

Image Reference

Hans Sloane, A voyage to the islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, . . . and islands of America. (London, 1707), vol. 1. (Copy in the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University)

Hans Sloane, the celebrated English physician and naturalist, lived in Jamaica for 18 months during 1687-1688. Reporting on the musical practices of the enslaved, he writes “they have several sorts of instruments in imitation of lutes, made of small gourds fitted with necks, strung with horse hairs or the peeled stalks of climbing plants or withs [branches]. These instruments are sometimes made of hollow’d timber covered with parchment or other skin wetted, having a bow for its neck, the strings ty’d longer or shorter, as they would alter their sounds (Sloane, pp. xlviii-xlviv). Sloane illustrates “some of these instruments”: three stringed instruments made of plant materials are shown. The Latin caption identifies the front (1) and center (2) instruments as “lutes of the Indies and Negros constructed from various gourds, their hollows covered by hides/skins.” The smaller instrument (2) is identified with the “Negros,” and banjo historians believe it is the earliest visual depiction of the early gourd banjo -- an instrument of West African derivation -- in the New World. The item illustrated from the “Indies” (1) is apparently shown for comparative purposes. Item 3 is a harp-lute or bridge harp of West African design, constructed from hollowed out wood and covered with hide; it is uncertain if Sloane actually observed this instrument in Jamaica. (Thanks to Zachary Matus for help with the Latin and to Ken Bilby and Laurent Dubois for assistance in instrument identification.) See also, Richard Rath, African Music in Seventeenth-Century Jamaica, William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 50 (1993).