The Ultimate Ancestor of the Modern Banjo?

Having discovered the extreme antiquity of fretted lutes with skin-membrane soundboards in my research, which first appeared in ancient Mesopotamia, from c.3000 BCE & later in the New Kingdom of ancient Egypt, from c.1500 BCE, it occurred to me just how ancient the basic principle behind the modern banjo actually is!

Firstly, I will discuss the fascinating similarity between the ancient Egyptian fretted lute (c.1500 BCE) & the modern banjo...







The long-necked lute has a history even more ancient than that of the lyre! It seems to have first appeared in Sumer, in ancient Mesopotamia, as early as 3500 BCE... 

"When I fix the frets on the lute, which enraptures my heart, I never damage its neck; I have devised rules for raising and lowering its intervals."

(King Culgi, king of Urim, c.3000 BCE)

Below is a carving of an early Mesopotamian lute player, as preserved in the Oriental Museum in Chicago:  


Bringing the haunting sound of the ancient Mesopotamian lute back to life, here is a remarkable video by Peter Pringle, featuring his rendition of the Epic of Gilgamesh, accompanied by a replica ancient Mesopotamian lute which he created, complete with authentic-sounding silk strings:

More fascinating details on the history of the fretted lutes of antiquity can be found here

Biblical Musicologist, John Wheeler also recently provided me with the following fascinating details about the origins of the long-necked lute in the Middle East, over 5000 years ago:


"Professor Dumbrill has a "BOOK III Organology III - Lutes" as a sizeable section in his book. Lutes appeared as art of the process of the straightening of the musical bow (in fact harps and lutes both appear as derivatives of the musical bow). 


There are many illustrations of lutes given from archaeological material in Mesopotamia (such as seals), dating as far back as Period I (pre-3000 BC). I think you'll find this interesting (p. 325, with an illustration I can't give here). The lute discussed is from an Akkadian seal cylinder, Period III (2334-2000 BC) 218:

"We notice two tassels hanging from the top of the neck of the instrument, from this we deduce it was fitted with two tuneable strings. It is highly probably that the fastening of the tuned string was similar to that in Ancient Egypt, the same as used in Niger today as well as in many other African and Near-Eastern countries" (p. 325).

Finally I'll refer to a lute on seal 255 from Uruk (Period II, 3000-2334 BC): "The possible representation of a tuning peg at the side of the neck may indicate that another was placed at 90 degrees from the first and is therefore not visible. A third is just seen as a small protuberance at the other side of the first. This technique is still used on the Morrocan genbri to this day" (p. 322). 


On the other hand, since the long and the short extension are perfectly aligned, I think it much more probable that we are seeing a single tuning stick, a device which likewise is very old (it was very frequently used on harps and lyres) and which likewise endures in practice in Africa"


From its origins in Sumeria, it then appeared in Canaan, and presumably during the Canaanite rule of Egypt under the Hyksos, the long-necked lute finally became established in ancient Egypt 3500 or so years ago, at the beginning of the New Kingdom.


Here is a detailed description of the Ancient Egyptian Lute, I found on this fascinating website:


"Classed as long necked lutes, the ancient Egyptian instruments generally had 2 - 3 strings, a semi-spike stick neck, and a drum-like body with an animal skin head. As seen in the period depiction above, the lutes' sound boxes came in two basic types:


    • A wooden, elongated-oval, boat-shaped body.


    • A semi-round body made from the whole shell of a tortoise.



The stick neck was round and generally depicted both with frets and without. The handful of extant examples reveal that the frets on the fretted variants might have been thin leather strips that were tied on to the neck or a single piece of leather or rope wrapped around the length of the neck with its protrusions serving as frets. In any case, they were not permanently fixed to the neck as integral components."

One of the most amazing discoveries I have found in my investigations into ancient cross-cultural exchanges of musical ideas, is the survival of this ancient 3500 year old Egyptian lute in modern day Gambia, where the instrument is known as the "Xhalam"




The instrument heard above, is literally identical to the ancient Egyptian lute...once played in the New Kingdom of Ancient Egypt - almost 3500 years ago, at the dawn of the 18th Dynasty of Ancient Egypt!


There are a few differences between the ancient Egyptian lute and the Xhalam, as kindly clarified for me here here, by Ulf Jagfors:


"There is a direct link between the today existing West African lutes and the Ancient Egyptien lutes. Court bard Har-Moses lute (about 1500 B.C) which is on display in the Cairo Museum is in many ways very similar in construction. I have examine that lute on spot. There are a few differences. The Egyptian lutes were mostly played with a wooden plectrum. They had no short thumb string as on nearly all Griot/Jali lutes. They also had frets made of a twisted rope around the neck"


Another direct ancestor of the ancient Egyptian lute still surviving in Africa, is called the "Ngoni", & it still can be heard today in Malia:





My YouTube subscriber, "Leftyseargent" kindly shared this amazing little gem of information with me about this other fascinating "living relic" of the ancient Egyptian lute, which also seems to be related to the African "Kora" lyre-harp...


"After I had commented on a Malian popular music video on YT, asking whether the instrumentation included the kora, another poster informed me that the instrument I heard was called  "ngoni." 

I Googled that term and found that it applies to several quite different-looking instruments.  The four-stringed version is clearly related to the xalam.  The seven-stringed version closely resembles the kora, differing mostly in the shape of the bridge:

The Malian musician/producer Salif Keita, arguably one of the greatest African stars, makes extensive use of it in his band, right along with modern stringed instruments.  Generally, it is the most noticeable in the mix.

That the bow-harp appears in areas surrounding Mali in something closely resembling the Egyptian form (with pegs) and the kora and ngoni are tuned with leather bands, suggests that they arrived in the area from different sources.  This suggests to me that the lute arrived there from a Mesopotamian source, rather than from Egypt, but the various forms of bow-harp (almost exclusively tuned with pegs) arrive by way of Egypt.
In researching the Asian forms of bow-harp, I find frequent assertions that it originated in Africa, yet it arrived in Burma and China without tuning pegs.  I must, therefore, question that theory"


Yet more evidence of ancient cross-cultural musical exchanges of ideas, which can still be seen and heard today!





Another interesting point gleaned from the ancient Egyptian lute, is the use of a taut leather soundboard - could the ancient Egyptians have been the first to invent the ultimate ancestor of the modern banjo?


Indeed, the Egyptian lute could be the ultimate ancestor of the "banjar" (a primitive banjo made from  gourd over which leather was stretched), which first introduced to America by African slaves at the beginning of the 19th century.




 Having discovered the extreme antiquity of fretted lutes with skin-membrane soundboards, it occurred to me just how ancient the basic principle behind the modern banjo actually is. Therefore, being obsessed by musical experimentation ino the unknown, I recently tried performing some of the actual music of ancient Greece - on the banjo! 

Actually, this is not as bizarre a concept as it first seems - the ancient Greek "Lyra", was quite literally, in principle, "a banjo without a fingerboard"! The "Lyra" was the ancient Greek lyre favoured for domestic use, which had a tortoise shell resonator, over which a skin membrane was stretched, just like the soundboard of a modern banjo! Also, just as on a modern banjo, the 7 strings of the Lyra passed over a bridge to transmit their vibration to the skin soundboard:


So, for quite literally the first time in 2000 year, below is a video featuring my arrangement of "The First Delphic Hymn To Apollo" (c.138BCE - 128BCE) & "Epitaph of Seikilos" (c.200 BCE - 100CE), played on a modern 5-string banjo... 



Below is one of my earlier experiments of "Archaemusicology meets the Moonshine" fusions, featuring my arrangement on banjo, of "Hymn To The Muse" by Mesomedes of Crete (2nd century CE):




Having first discovered the amazing potential the modern 5-string banjo has, for playing ancient music, in my countless fiendish musical experiments, I also discovered the potential of the banjo for playing traditional Turkish music!

First, below is my arrangement for 5-string banjo, of the Turkish folk melody "Uskudar'a Gideriken":


This same melody was also adapted & adopted by Jewish Klezmer musicians, where it is now known as "The Terk in America"...



On the theme of my first love, Klezmer music, a few years ago I put up a "Semitically Surreal" series on my YouTube Channel of "Jewgrass Banjo" Klezmer/clawhammer banjo fusions! 




Not only does ancient Greek music, Middle Eastern music & Klezmer work on the incredibly versatile banjo...the myriad of "Moonshine Fusions" works the same for Medieval music! Here is my arrangement of the 800 year old song "Ja Nus Hons Pris" ,composed by none other than King Richard I, (alias "Richard The Lionheart), whilst imprisoned for a ridiculous random in a selection of suitably stereotypically dank, dire Medieval castle dungeons by Duke Leopold V of Austria, who imprisoned him in his castle at Dürnstein on the Danube and later handed him over to Heinrich VI, the Holy Roman Emperor, who kept him at various other castles until the English finally paid a decent chunk of the humungously huge amount demanded for his ransom :


The original lyrics & English translation of this 800 year old song is as follows:

"Ja nus hons pris ne dira sa raison
Adroitement, se dolantement non;
Mais par effort puet il faire chançon.
Mout ai amis, mais povre sont li don;
Honte i avront se por ma reançon
— Sui ça deus yvers pris.

Ce sevent bien mi home et mi baron–
Ynglois, Normant, Poitevin et Gascon–
Que je n'ai nul si povre compaignon
Que je lessaisse por avoir en prison;
Je nou di mie por nule retraçon,
—Mais encor sui [je] pris.

Or sai je bien de voir certeinnement
Que morz ne pris n'a ami ne parent,
Quant on me faut por or ne por argent.
Mout m'est de moi, mes plus m'est de ma gent,
Qu'aprés ma mort avront reprochement
—Se longuement sui pris.

N'est pas mervoille se j'ai le cuer dolant,
Quant mes sires met ma terre en torment.
S'il li membrast de nostre soirement
Quo nos feïsmes andui communement,
Je sai de voir que ja trop longuement
—Ne seroie ça pris.

Ce sevent bien Angevin et Torain–
Cil bacheler qui or sont riche et sain–
Qu'encombrez sui loing d'aus en autre main.
Forment m'amoient, mais or ne m'ainment grain.
De beles armes sont ore vuit li plain,
—Por ce que je sui pris

Mes compaignons que j'amoie et que j'ain–
Ces de Cahen et ces de Percherain–
Di lor, chançon, qu'il ne sunt pas certain,
C'onques vers aus ne oi faus cuer ne vain;
S'il me guerroient, il feront que vilain
—Tant con je serai pris.

Contesse suer, vostre pris soverain
Vos saut et gart cil a cui je m'en clain
—Et por cui je sui pris.

Je ne di mie a cele de Chartain,
—La mere Loës.

No prisoner can tell his honest thought
Unless he speaks as one who suffers wrong;
But for his comfort as he may make a song.
My friends are many, but their gifts are naught.
Shame will be theirs, if, for my ransom, here
—I lie another year.

They know this well, my barons and my men,
Normandy, England, Gascony, Poitou,
That I had never follower so low
Whom I would leave in prison to my gain.
I say it not for a reproach to them,
—But prisoner I am!

The ancient proverb now I know for sure;
Death and a prison know nor kind nor tie,
Since for mere lack of gold they let me lie.
Much for myself I grieve; for them still more.
After my death they will have grievous wrong
—If I am a prisoner long.

What marvel that my heart is sad and sore
When my own lord torments my helpless lands!
Well do I know that, if he held his hands,
Remembering the common oath we swore,
I should not here imprisoned with my song,
—Remain a prisoner long.

They know this well who now are rich and strong
Young gentlemen of Anjou and Touraine,
That far from them, on hostile bonds I strain.
They loved me much, but have not loved me long.
Their plans will see no more fair lists arrayed
—While I lie here betrayed.

Companions whom I love, and still do love,
Geoffroi du Perche and Ansel de Caieux,
Tell them, my song, that they are friends untrue.
Never to them did I false-hearted prove;
But they do villainy if they war on me,
—While I lie here, unfree.

Countess sister! Your sovereign fame
May he preserve whose help I claim,
—Victim for whom am I!

I say not this of Chartres' dame,
—Mother of Louis! "



Here is a quaint little 13th century French Dance "La Quinte Estampie Real" preserved in the Manuscrit du Roi...BARN DANCE STYLE!



Moving forward in time to the 16th century, even Elizabethan Dance Music works surprisingly well in my "Barn Dance" style thematic interpretation...fueled by MOONSHINE instead of Mead!!




As my research into the ultimate origins of the instruments of antiquity grows, more and more do I find evidence of there being fascinating cross-cultural exchanges of musical ideas, between cultures as diverse as Mesopotamia, Sumeria, Ancient Egypt, Ancient Israel, Ancient Greece...and surviving today, in not only Africa, but maybe even as far as the Appalachian Mountains!



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