Modern banjo culture arose from the American South and has its roots in West Africa by way of the Caribbean. Slaves brought their unique string instrument (there were several variations, but by the mid-19th century, these were collectively referred to as "the banjar") and their techniques for playing and passed those traditions on to the slave owners. In time, the banjo appeared on stage in the U.S. in the form of minstrel acts.
This humble instrument with its 4-6 strings had found its way into popular culture and would eventually become a signature instrument for a variety of musical styles, including jazz and bluegrass. For many, the banjo is an iconic American instrument, a crucial player in American roots and folk music. So how did it come to the UK?
The American minstrels who first brought it to the stage in the U.S. took their shows to England, too, where it was equally embraced by popular culture. In fact, the 6-string banjo was a British invention, and the 4-string tenor banjo is a key melodic instrument in a lot of Irish music.
The banjo's elegant simplicity is, beyond its sound, one of its most lauded features, and it hasn't changed much. The head frame is a perfect circle over which a membrane stretches over---basically a drum with strings pulled across it. The neck is long and graceful, and while many banjos are made of mahogany, not all of them are. For instance, the Shackleton.
This banjo is made from blonde maple and preserves the traditional look of the earliest banjos. Its namesake was an explorer who led a Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1914. When his ship became trapped amid ice floes en route to the South Pole, Shackleton and his group abandoned it, along with almost all of their personal effects. Among the few things they kept was a 12-pound banjo, which Shackleton called "vital medicine" that would help them endure the arduous journey to safety.
It's in that spirit that a Norwich, Norfolk banjo factory meticulously crafts its instruments---by hand. The necks, the detailing, the inlay are all assiduously hand-made. Shackleton Instruments continues a legacy of banjo-making. A British one.