When is a calabash not a calabash? It sounds like the beginning to a botanist joke, one that I’m not sure I could find the right pun for. It is also the title of a paper by anthropolgist Sally Price, where she explores the implications of conflating calabashes and gourds on African American and Indian American art and culture. And the answer to the question actually seems to be all the time. I’ve heard calabashes called treegourds and gourds called calabash gourds. Price has an excellent table of the differences between the two fruits, but most simply put, a gourd is Lagenaria siceraria and the fruit of a vine. A calabash is Crescentia cujete, and the fruit of a tree. They are not only totally different plants, they diverge at the taxonomic classification of angiosperm, or flower plant (meaning they have a different order and family).
Why does this matter?
Why does this matter? Well, for one, science and botany are cool. And Price outlines the different, specific uses for the two fruits among Saramaka Maroons in Suriname. But when it comes to banjos, we have descriptions and instruments that are both made of calabashes and gourds, and that can actually tell us something about where the instruments might originate.
Humans domesticated the bottle gourd (Lagenaria) around 11,000 years ago, making it “one of the earliest plants to have been domesticated for use by humans,” according to Mary Wilkins Ellert. She notes that it was present in the Americas by 10,000 BCE—meaning that it far predates the arrival of any Europeans. It originated in Africa, where there are five species of wild Lagenaria. And the bottle gourd is very practical. It can grow anywhere in the United States (including Alaska and Hawaii), and when the fruit is dried, it forms a hard shell that can be made into a jug, bowl, or instrument.
Across Suriname, we saw dried calabashes used as bowls and rattles. The bowls were cut across the center, while the rattles were whole and had a handle stuck through their center. Price notes that among the Maroons, only calabashes are used to make rattles. Although native to the Americas, the human record of using calabashes dates to 5,000–3,800 BCE in Peru. It was later introduced to Africa. But here is where a main difference lies between the two plants: while gourd vines have a wide growing range (although they do better in certain climates), calabashes (Crescentia) are a tropical tree, and only grow in hardiness zones above 11. This means that in the United States, they’d only grow in the Florida Keys (and Hawaii).
Although how the fruits look (both round and green when fresh; fleshy inside; hard and brown when dry) is part of the problem, another part is linguistic. The scientific names have a distinction, and in English and German, for example, we have two different words: gourd and calabash / kürbisflasche and kalebasse. But in French and Dutch, calebasse and kalebas are the words for both species. So, in accounts that have been translated from French, Dutch, or even German, gourd and calabash may have been confused. And so while (almost always) white, European and European-descended men are describing what a banjo is made of, can we take any real stock in whether they mean a calabash or a gourd?
Here are some descriptions I’ve pulled out:
Their musical instruments are a sort of drum, being a piece of hollow wood covered with sheepskin, and a kind of guitar, made of a calabass.
"Then those poor slaves leave off work and repair to their houses, where they get their suppers, make a great fire, and with a kitt (made of a gourd or calabash with one twine string) play, sing, and dance according to their own country fashion...
Their merry-wang is a favourite instrument, a rustic guitar, of four strings. It is made with a calabash; a slice of which taken off, a dried bladder, or skin, is spread across the largest section; and this is fastened to a handle, which they take great pains in ornamenting with a sort of rude carved work, and ribbands.
When everything was ready for the dance, one of them tuned a rough guitar, mounted on a calabash with catgut, and began to prelude as on a Moorish mandolin.
The most curious instrument, however, was a stringed instrument, which no doubt was imported from Africa. On the top of the finger board was the rude figure of a man in a sitting posture, and two pegs behind him to which the strings were fastened. The body was a calabash.
The guitar is made from a half of a calabash, to which there is a fairly long handle. They clothe it with a skin similar to that of the tambour, stretching on it four strings of silk, or birds' intestines which are first dried and then prepared with date oil; these four strings are supported by a comb. They play on this instrument, which in their language they call a Bagna, while pressing and hitting it, and consider it a sort of violin.
22.214.171.124. Strum Strumps, lutes of the Indians & Blacks, made of different hollowed-out gourds covered with animal hides.
And I well remember, that in Virginia and Maryland, the favourite and almost only instrument in use among the slaves was a bandore; or, as they pronounced the word, banjer. Its body was a large hollow gourd, with a long handle attached to it, strung with catgut and played on with the fingers.
No. 15 is the Creole-bania; this is like a mandolin or guitar, being made of a gourd covered with a sheepskin, to which is fixed a very long neck or handle...
Strum Strump made of a round large gourd.
Nearly all play a type of guitar made of half a "calabasse" covered with a skin scraped down to the thickness of a parchment, with a fairly long neck.
One writer makes a distinction, writing calabash in the text but specifying lagenaria with the scientific name:
Another musical instrument of the true negro is the Banjah. Over a hollow calabash (Cucurb lagenaria L. -gourd) is stretched a sheep-skin, the instrument lengthened with a neck, strung with 4 strings, and tuned like a chord.
And then we have the four surviving early gourd- and calabash-bodied themselves. And yes, I say that because two are made of calabashes and two are made of gourds. The Creole-bania from Suriname is made of a calabash (even though John Gabriel Stedman, who collected it, writes that it is made of a gourd), as is the panja, also from Suriname. The banza collected by Victor Schoelcher in Haiti is a gourd (and its oblong shape makes that obvious), and a new banjo that turned up at the Musee de Confluences in Lyon is made of a gourd, although it is much rounder.
In Well of Souls, I argue that the banjo was a ritual object, and that also brings me back to gourds vs. calabashes. Sally Price points out that among the Maroons, calabashes seem to have more ritual uses and gourds have more practical uses, while the authors of a paper on a scientific analysis calabashes in Central America also note that, “Archaeological remains of C. cujete in Central America and the Antilles were found in ritualistic contexts, such as offerings in funerary rituals” and calabashes have many ritual uses in Central and South America, and the Caribbean. On the other hand, gourds are used to make string instruments in West Africa, like the 18-string kora harp and the two string gurumi. Did traditions combine so that banjo makers in Suriname found the calabash suited ritual better? Or was it a practical choice since a calabash forms a harder shell? Or did it not matter whether the body was a calabash or gourd, as long as the ritual structure* and religious context remained what was most important?
*I know this is coming out before Well of Souls is published, and if you are reading this and thinking, “What is she talking about? What the hell is the ritual structure of the banjo??” I promise it will be clearer after you finish the book. Sorry.
This is part of Banya Obbligato, a series of blog posts relating to my book Well of Souls: Uncovering the Banjo’s Hidden History. While integrally related to Well of Souls, these posts are editorially and financially separate from the book (i.e., I’m researching, writing, and editing them myself and no one is paying me for it). So, if you want to financially support the blog or my writing and research you can do so here.
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