The Haitian Banza

Banjology Project, Laurent Dubois, David Garner, and Mary Caton Lingold of Duke University

In 1841, French abolitionist Victor Schoelcher travelled to Haiti. An avid collector of musical instruments, he left the country carrying several that became part of his personal collection in Paris. Decades later, he donated these instruments to the Musée du Conservatoire de Musique in Paris. This collection was, at some point in the late nineteenth century, boxed up and put into storage, where many of these instruments stayed until 1997, when they were shipped to the new Museum of Music at La Villette.

Though this museum devotes only one room out of its vast space to non-European music, it does at least have a curator of “non-European” instruments, Philippe Bruguière. Part of his job was to go through the crates from the old Musée du Conservatoire that were relocated to the museum. In 1997, while carrying out this work, he found a gourd covered with an animal skin, upon which was written an inscription describing it as a “banza,” the instrument of the “nègres of Haiti.” Soon afterwards, he found the neck of an instrument in another box, and realized the two pieces fit together. The instrument he had re-assembled, he soon realized, was one of a series brought from Haiti by Schoelcher in 1841. (For more on the history of the musical collection this was a part of, and of Schoelcher’s donation, click here).

The re-discovery of this instrument has offered those interested in the history of the banjo a series of vital pieces of information about the construction of the instrument. On this page we discuss the instrument itself, while on the linked pages we offer other information about the history of the banjo/banza in Haiti.

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