Circle Unbroken

Four centuries ago these musical stories echoed through Jamaica. Now, they’re being brought back to life.
August 8, 2016

For the past year, I have spent untold hours studying, and sounding out, two pages in an old book: Hans Sloane’s 1707 Voyage to the Islands. It’s a beautiful object, large, leather-bound, full of images of trees and shells and spiders and fruit. But my colleagues David Garner Ph.D. ’14 and graduate student Mary Caton Lingold and I keep coming back to two pages of music—an evanescent fragment offered to us from across the centuries.

For us, these pages have become a door into a largely lost world of sound, language, and music. They are the earliest example of musical notation representing Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Atlantic music, and essentially the only one until the late eighteenth century. As such, they represent a tiny trace of one of the most important musical epics in the modern world: the creation of modern Afro-Atlantic music, which today is as close as we get to a global sound, perhaps even a global language.

Sloane grew up in Northern Ireland and studied in France, where he became interested in the burgeoning field of natural history. He traveled to Jamaica in the 1680s and began studying and documenting the flora and fauna of the island. He soon realized that the enslaved Africans on the island’s plantations, who had to grow their own food on small gardens and provision grounds, had a deep knowledge of the natural world. Sloane became interested in their cultural life, particularly their music, and when he left Jamaica, he carried with him three handmade instruments he had acquired there. Two of these had gourd bodies covered with an animal skin, and flat necks with several strings stretched upon them. These are some of the earliest known examples of the New World instrument that came to be known generally as the banjo.

About a decade ago, I began playing the banjo, and soon I became fascinated by the instrument’s history, which I’ve researched in collections in the U.S., Europe, and the Caribbean. This has been a process of gathering tiny fragments from many different places to tell a bigger story, and Sloane’s work is one of the most vital of these fragments. His collection ultimately became the foundation for the creation of the British Museum, but somewhere along the way the instruments from Jamaica were lost, and only a  few written traces and one image depicting them remain. This same fragment has fascinated Lingold, who is writing a dissertation on early Afro-Atlantic music, and Garner, a banjo player and composer interested in drawing on vernacular musical traditions to create new works. They both have taught me that no matter how valuable a book might be in communicating musical history, it can only do so much: To truly understand the language of music, you have to hear it.

So, for the last year, the three of us have been meeting to find a way to bring the music of seventeenth-century Jamaica to life. Sloane writes that he asked someone he met in Jamaica, a man he names simply as Mr. Baptiste, to “take the words they sung and set them to Musick.” The result is that, in his book, there is musical notation for five distinct pieces of music: one called “Angola,” another “Papa,” and then three pieces under the title “Koromanti.”

We read and re-read the lines, debating the meaning of each term. And then David began sounding out these complex songs, on banjo and mbira. Each time he did, we heard something new and different, and it changed how we read the words, too. The music and the text began to shift, together, and our interpretation got richer and richer.

As much as we’ve explored these pages, though, we keep finding new questions. There are words to the songs in African languages, whose meaning we still need to analyze and understand. But now that the music is living again—on our website Musical Passage—other musicians and scholars may join in the conversation, solving the mysteries of the past and expanding the early banjo’s modern reach. 

Dubois is professor of Romance studies and history and the director of the Forum for Scholars and Publics at Duke. He is the author of The Banjo: America’s African Instrument (Harvard University Press, 2016). The “Musical Passage” site is at www.musicalpassage.org, and the “Banjology” site is at www.sites.duke.edu/banjology