The origins of New Orleans jazz have long been thought to be a product of the meeting of African and European musical traditions in the city. Yet, there are no sources about the music played by Africans from the colonial era of New Orleans, the time when new African captives arrived in the city with their musical traditions intact and unaltered by exposure to European forms. In 1818 Benjamin Henry Latrobe supplied a way to connect a traditional African instrument played in the Atlantic age with and instrument that was destined to become part of the jazz tradition: the banjo.
Here is Latrobe’s famous description of a strange musical instrument he heard at a Sunday gathering of the enslaved at Congo Square:
“The most curious instrument, however, was a stringed instrument which no doubt was imported from Africa. On top of the finger board was the rude figure of a man in a sitting posture, & two pegs behind him to which the strings were fastened. The body was a calabash. It was played upon by a very little old man, apparently 80 or 90 years old."
(Benjamin Henry Boneval Latrobe, Impressions Respecting New Orleans, Diary and Sketches, 1818-1820, New York: Columbia University Press, 1951, p. 50.)
The sketch that Latrobe made of this instrument shows that it is typical of the stringed, plucked instruments with gourd or wooden sound boxes that were played by enslaved Africans throughout the Americas during the Atlantic age. And it reveals what seems to be the ancestor of the American banjo. The recent discovery in a Paris museum of a well preserved stringed instrument brought from Haiti in 1841 and labeled “banza” sealed a clear connection between the instrument that Latrobe sketched in New Orleans and the banjo of 19th-century American minstrel shows.
In nineteenth-century America, the banjo replaced the traditional instrument and white musicians, instead of enslaved Africans, became its virtuosos. But in 21st century West Africa, the kind of instrument that Latrobe heard played in New Orleans in 1818 is still a vital part of living musical tradition.
In Senegal, the instrument is called a xalam in the Wolof language spoken in coastal Senegal and a hoddu in the Pulaar tongue of the inhabitants of the upper Senegal valley. Contemporary New Orleanians had a chance to hear the hoddu played in April 2013 by five masters of the instrument from the village of Njum Waalo who participated in a conference on the comparative and connected histories of New Orleans and Saint-Louis du Senegal sponsored by Tulane and the Université Cheikh Anta Diop, Dakar and the École des Hautes Études in Sciences Sociales, Paris. You can watch a portion of the musical encounter between master hoddu player Demma Dia and New Orleans banjo virtuoso Don Vappie here (link).