In 1688 a British naturalist and physician, Hans Sloane, visited the Caribbean colonies, spending the majority of his time in Jamaica, where he practiced medicine and collected cultural and ecological artifacts. Years later, in 1707, he published a narrative of his travels titled Voyage to the Islands. The book includes of the earliest and most substantial records of early African diasporic music in the Americas, including several pieces of musical notation, and the earliest known image of a banjo.
Over the centuries, African-descended performers would revolutionize music the world over, but few records exist of their earliest performances under bondage. The musical notation in Sloane’s book, and the accompanying descriptive passages lend insight into the complex world of music in Jamaican slave society.
In Musical Passage: Voyage to 1688 Jamaica, historian Laurent Dubois, composer David K. Garner, and literary scholar Mary Caton Lingold tell the story of this rare document alongside recordings that interpret the fascinating music. They highlight role of “Mr. Baptiste,” the unknown musician tasked with the writing of the notation, arguing that he may have been a freed black performer native to the colonies, and a composer. The website makes it possible to engage with the music of New World Africans whose enduring legacy fell silent in the historical record for far too long.
Read more about the project in an essay written for Duke Magazine by FSP director and Musical Passage co-creator Laurent Dubois.
Update January 2017: Musical Passage was selected for Slate's list of 5 great digital history projects of 2016.
Published by SX Archipelagos: A Small Axe Journal of Digital Practice, the project was funded by the Forum for Scholars and Publics and the Franklin Humanities Institute at Duke University.