Exploring the Banjo

 

The banjo has been a fascination of mine ever since I started noticing how much of a puzzle it is. Both in the way it is played - how the notes physically are laid out on the fret-board, and it’s very diverse history.  I wanted to explore the banjo as an instrument and as a tradition. Where does it come from?  How much of the original technique has stuck with the instrument? Has there been any collaborations of the modern banjo with what remains of the ‘mother’ banjo?

What is a ‘Banjo’?

 

The modern banjo may refer to 3 different instruments. The most general description of the banjo

is a polyphonic pitched instrument with a wooden neck, a snare-drum like resonator, and metal strings

that are played with one hand plucking and the other fretting.

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The Bluegrass, or closed back 5-string banjo is distinct in the sound created by 2 finger picks

(worn on the index and middle fingers) and a thumb pick alternating or ‘rolling’ through chords

and melodies. It is tuned to an Open G chord (gDGBD) with the highest string below the Low D string.

This banjo is used mostly to play Bluegrass music, but modern artists like Béla Fleck and Jayme Stone

have pushed the boundaries far beyond this genre.

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The Claw-hammer/Frailing banjo is very similar to the Bluegrass banjo in construction,

but has an open back. The playing technique involves the plucking hand heading towards the

ground with the index or middle finger striking downwards on the desired string, then the thumb

catching and plucking usually a different string.  Bob Winans has a wonderful explanation here.

This banjo is notorious for being played in many different tunings, often directly related

to the song being played to facilitate the melody.

This style of banjo playing is often referred to as the Old-tyme style. Abigail Washburn,

Chris Coole, and Daniel Koulack are some of my favourite players in this style.                                                 Above: 5 String Banjo (made by Deering)

Below: 5 String 'open-back' Clawhammer Banjo

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The Tenor Banjo is similar to the bluegrass banjo in construction

(closed back and snare-drum), but it only has four strings that are

tuned in fifths like a Violin - CGDE and GDAE are common tunings in Dixieland (Jazz)

and Irish styles. Brian Mcgrath and Koady Chaisson from The East Pointers are

two of my favourite tenor banjo players.

(below is a tenor banjo)

The 'Banjo' and It's Controversial History

Conflicting Histories

 

Being a harmless instrument - an inanimate object - one would think it would effortlessly travel through time to become what it is today, but in reality the banjo experienced some unique conflictions in it’s upbringing.

 

In his dissertation, Scott V. Linford, an Ethnomusicologist spent a great deal of time and

effort exploring the intertwined history of the banjo and its African ancestor the akonting.

The person who first made this connection was ‘Gambian musician and scholar

Daniel Laemouahuma Jatta’ who ‘first heard the banjo in the early … when a bluegrass tune came on the local radio station, [and] he was immediately struck by the banjo's sonic similarities to the akonting, an instrument he had played as a young man. A friend informed him that the banjo had roots in West Africa (a fact which had by then been deliberately obscured by a century of historical white-washing’ this led Jatta to investigate.

Years later, Jatta and his Swedish collaborator Ulf Jägfors presented their findings at the Banjo Collectors’ Conference in Massachusetts. ‘The two men proposed that the akonting and banjo shared a close historical relationship…Their claims were apparently quite controversial: some members of banjo-centered online message boards accused Jatta of fabricating the instrument and its tradition for personal renown, while others allegedly even threatened physical violence against him.’

Linford continues to describe ‘the akonting's uncanny resemblance to early American banjos challenged two central aspects of the banjo's existing historical narrative. First, it disrupted the previous consensus that American banjos descended from a group of West African archetypes played by griot musicians – plucked lutes such as the xalam, hoddu, and ngoni. While these instruments are similar to American gourd banjos in many respects, they differ in key organological details: they have wooden resonators instead of gourd resonators; they are tanged lutes rather than full-spike lutes; and their playing style involves a combination of up- and down-picking that is similar but distinct from what we know of early banjo technique. –‘ Linford is describing what is known now as the Old-tyme banjo style. Here is a video of Daniel playing in this style. 

(above Daniel Laumouahuma Jatta playing the Akonting)

He continues ‘ - although subtle, these differences leave room for the banjo to remain a uniquely American invention based on indeterminate African influences – and indeed the banjo's frequent sobriquet is "America's instrument." The existence of a single, specific relative containing nearly all the key features of American gourd banjos displaces the site of invention from the New World to West Africa.’

 

Linford then describes how the invention of the shortened drone string was infact a myth of white American innovation told as an origin story by S.S. Stewart, an early popular banjo manufacturer. In Earl Scruggs and the 5-String Banjo, what some consider 'the bluegrass banjo bible' it says 'Joel Walker Sweeney is widely credited for an innovation made in 1831 to the four-string banjos of Jefferson's era. He added another string, and the five-string banjo was born.' (pg.174) This was all just a scheme to make the banjo ‘more palatable to white consumers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In fact, the shortened drone string far predates blackface minstrelsy and is similar to varying string lengths on the akonting and other West African plucked lutes.’

 

I personally have not felt any racism, because I am a caucasian Canadian male, but I have felt that people think the banjo only belongs in select genres. I have had the pleasure of working in two settings that challenge the banjo's norm. BEARD and a Lebanese duet of the tune Sunrise in Montreal with Pia Salvia. 

For more information on the history of the banjo tied to the akonting, and an interesting read check out the rest of Linford’s dissertation on the Historical Narratives of the Akonting and the Banjo.

To summarize the history of the banjo Stone says brilliantly in the NRP interview: "More than anything, it was the blueprint of the banjo that traveled over in musicians' minds, and then they built a similar thing with what they had here: dried-out gourds, goat skin, whatever they could find. The instrument changed, and with the advent of metal, it became an African instrument that went through the Industrial Revolution."

Where is the Banjo Today?

As the modern world continues to bend and blend genres together the banjo's involvement will follow suit. It is not mainstream yet to see a banjo playing in a setting other than the traditional american folk acoustic music, but there are a few musicians who have been experimenting with different collaborations. 

Jayme Stone is a Canadian Banjo player who has been pushing the banjo's capabilities based on other instrument techniques. From his website: 'Two-time Juno-winning banjoist, composer and instigator Jayme Stone makes music inspired by sounds from around the world, bridging folk, jazz, and chamber music. His award-winning albums both defy and honor the banjo’s long role in the world’s music, turning historical connections into compelling music.' 

In 2010 he made an album with the kora player Mansa Ssiok called Africa to Appalachia. This album features beautiful songs and instrumentals that blends traditional kora playing with banjo and other american and african instruments. NPR featured Jayme and this album on a very interesting podcast. Bringing the Banjo From 'Africa to Appalachia' heard on All Things Considered briefly summarizes the banjo's history then goes on to talk about the album. It is beautiful how Jayme's banjo playing blends with Mansa's Kora playing. In the African inspired music the banjo sounds right at home. In the more folk based American music the Kora adds an interesting texture. This album is available on bandcamp and other music sites to listen and buy. 

One of my favorite largescale collaborations is Béla Fleck’s documentary and accompanying CD ‘Throw Down Your Heart’ descripting his journey through a few countries in Africa playing with local African musicians. Below is a video of him playing with a thumb piano player, traditionally called a mbira.

 

What I find the most intriguing is how similar the timbre of the mbira and the banjo is. The sharp attack and fast delay allows for very rhythmic playing while not creating a muddy collection of pitches.

In the past two semesters I've had the wonderful experience on a few occasions of playing with my friend Gabriel Zutrau. He plays the nyunga nyunga mbira which is a specific tuning of the instrument. One Saturday afternoon I got to sit in on the monthly mbira gathering and play some banjo. Listen below: 

I have been working on a composition that I want to name 'Dreaming of Sleep' because one late evening as I was working on a project this little idea came to me. I was drained and could not get this idea out of my ear. It is the first of hopefully many African inspired banjo pieces. Listen to some ideas below. They are in one audio file starting with solo banjo, shortly after I received the idea, then harp and banjo, then harp with paper in between the strings. The last idea was an experiment. With the paper between the strings the harp ends up sounding like a balofon, a pitched percussion, xylophone type african instrument. Listen below:

Conclusion

The banjo is a multifaceted character contributing to some of America's most treasured folk genres. It has unique sonic abilities - loud and bright able to cut through a burnin' bluegrass quintet and dull and soft enough to lull someone to sleep. I have enjoyed learning about the history of this fascinating instrument and I am glad banjo players of today are being inspired by the banjo's roots. I hope the banjo will eventually be recognized as a diverse, multi-genre instrument that will inspire more cultural and musical collaborations.

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Annotated Bibliography

a.Peer-Reviewed articles

Charry, Eric. 1996. "Plucked Lutes in West Africa: An Historical Overview." The Galpin Society Journal 49:3-37

 

This article is a collection of lutes from West Africa. Because the banjo didn’t get its name until much later this will be very important in helping me trace the banjo back to it’s roots by looking at instruments with a similar structure.

 

Linford, Scott V. "Historical Narratives of the Akonting and Banjo." Ethnomusicology Review. UCLA, n.d. Web. 28 Mar. 2017.

 

This is Scott Linford’s dissertation paper tracing the Banjo’s history to the Akonting. This is a very important paper for my project. It includes many videos, pictures, and sources to explore. Specifically the Akonting has a similar technique to the claw-hammer banjo in the way it produces sound.  

 

"Banjo Facts: A Selected History." Omeka RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Apr. 2017

 

This is a collection of facts (with sources that I will be able to explore) about the history of the banjo. Specifically it talks about tunings which fascinates me because how an instrument resonates and how the geometry of the shapes on the fret board are configured are essential to realize what was possible, or natural on the instrument. I plan to explore the tunings to see how melodies and scales sit.

 

b. Scholarly Book:

Scruggs, Earl, and Burt Brent. Earl Scruggs and the 5-string banjo. Milwaukee, Wisc.: Hal Leonard Corp., 2005. Print. pg.174

Sutherland, Matt. "Banjo; An Illustrated History." ForeWord, 27 May 2016. Academic OneFile, catalog.berklee.edu:2048/login?url=http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=GPS&sw=w&u=mlin_b_berklee&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA453659192&it=r&asid=41ab347eaff06a576d92bb3984fbee2d. Accessed 1 Apr. 2017.

 

This book as the title indicates is a history of the Banjo represented with pictures and descriptions. From the book summary it seems to mostly talk about the history once the Banjo enters America. This will answer my question about how the technique has been retained.

 

c. Mass-media

Adams, Greg and Shlomo Pestcoe. 2007. "The Jola Akonting: Reconnecting the Banjo to its West African Roots." Sing Out! 51(1):43-51.

 

This is one of the Articles that Scott Linford cited in this dissertation. I found the article online and I am prepared to buy it. It is in Sing Out! a magazine that discusses folk music history. This as, well as Scott’s dissertation, will me important to investigate the history of the banjo and it’s link to the Akonting.

 

d. Multimedia Source:

Stone, Jayme. "Bringing The Banjo From 'Africa To Appalachia'" NPR. NPR, 12 Oct. 2008. Web. 03 Apr. 2017. <http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=95607716>. Heard on All Things Considered

"Minstrel Banjo - A window to the slave origins of clawhammer banjo, with Bob Winans." YouTube. N.p., 26 Aug. 2014. Web. 09 May 2017.

Linford, Scott. "Mande Waruna." Vimeo. N.p., 24 Apr. 2017. Web. 09 May 2017.

Vafolklife. "From Africa to Appalachia." YouTube. YouTube, 01 May 2014. Web. 09 May 2017.

This is a transcript and summary of a radio interview of Jayme Stone, a Canadian Banjo player who had recently made a recording with the Kora player Mansa Sissoko. This is important and interesting because he describes some of the history of the banjo, and talks about how the banjo’s tone mixes with the Kora. Jayme is a world-class banjo player that is known for his innovation and search for collaborations with world musicians. I bought this album and plan to explore how Jayme uses the banjo in a modern world to play ancestral music.

 

I have connected with Scott Linford, and Jyme Stone on Facebook and plan to discuss some of his works cited and topics discussed in his dissertation.

 

Akonting