Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Banjo: an appreciation

This post may be so far outside the envelope of good taste and political correctness and aural comfort, that it may well get Returned To Sender. Some might end up wishing the postal strike had started a little sooner.

The banjo is a much maligned and misunderstood instrument. Apparently.
It should not be confused with the ukulele - unless of course it's a banjo-ukulele.

Nor should it be confused with this:

- banjos being made of a polished wheel-rim, a length of broom-handle, a selection of wire [from barbed to garotted] and some jubilee-clips.

But for some reason this made it onto Radio 4's Pick of the Week:

The Essay [ - it's an eleven-o'clockish sort of thing on BBC Radio 3.]
Novelist AL Kennedy describes what happened after she found a neglected banjo in a shop in Glasgow. Some quotes:

"The banjo? - it's joke. Funnier than a trombone - or even an ocharina."
"That strange metallic hum of a disturbed banjo."
"It's a naturally anxious instrument."
"You shouldn't want to know how to play it - and if you can, you should refrain."

It is the Contributor's sincere hope that no Blimps were harmed during the course of this missive.


tincanman said...

Hopefully you'll get lots of comments on this, but don't be discouraged if you don't cause we had a banjo appreciation thread a couple months ago.

cheers & keep em coming!

goneforeign said...

I'm not sure where you stand on the issue of banjos, I like 'em.
Unfortunately they were used as basic rhythm instruments in the traditional jazz resurgence of the late 40's and from this evolved the 'dixieland' image with straw hats, pink faces and banjos. It's much more than that, there's all sorts of west African versions currently being played and of course it's been chosen as the centerpiece instrument of much bluegrass - Dueling banjo's, Foggy mountain breakdown et al.
It pre-dates the guitar going back easily to the Civil War and before, it's a very traditional instrument worldwide.
If you really want to know what a banjo can do go to Spotty and search for Bela Fleck or check his website:
Actually you should go to his website and check his African project and watch the videos.
He's probably the world's best.

recognition said...

Banjos it is an interesting instrument and seem to have like an inner rhythm...

Anonymous said...

Fuel sez:

Didn't read the first banjo post but would hope that Otis Taylor was there. He's been playing his "trance blues" on it for years. My fave album of his is "Double V" but "Recapturing the Banjo" really puts the instrument to the fore.

From an interview in at

“I want people to know that the banjo came from Africa—that it’s an African instrument,” Taylor explains. “Recapturing the Banjo is an educational album, not just good music. A lot of people think the banjo was developed for bluegrass or Appalachian folk music, but banjo-like instruments discovered on archeological digs in North Africa have been dated back at least 700 years. I want to recapture the banjo’s identity as a black instrument. It didn’t get here until the slaves did.”

To make his point, and his album, Taylor assembled a group of top-flight banjo picking collaborators: Corey Harris, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Guy Davis, Grammy-winner Keb’ Mo’, and Don Vappie—some of the most progressive African American artists in contemporary blues.

“I wanted to show that we are modern black men with modern ideas,” says Taylor. “Although we recorded old timey stuff, psychedelic stuff, New Orleans music, jug band music, and our own songs, we put a distinctive spin on all of it.”

Hart’s tune “A Prophet’s Mission,” about the Native American chieftain Tecumseh’s attempts to rally various tribes against the European invaders, weaves a bed of percussion and twin basses around his raw singing and loop-like banjo. And a tune later, Taylor’s own “Absinthe” sounds fueled by the narcotic liquor—real absinthe, not the new-fangled store-bought kind. It opens with a burble of drunken cornet and sets his, Mo’ ’s, and Vappie’s overlapping banjo licks against Hart’s expressive lap steel guitar. Vappie may be the finest banjoist currently playing in the New Orleans and Creole jazz tradition (He’s worked with Doc Cheatham and Terence Blanchard, and is a regular guest of Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra), but on this recording he’s found his counterparts in Taylor and Mo’."

Also worthy of inclusion here are the raw roots rocking of those Swedish sisters Baskery. I'm indebted to Tempusfugit for my introduction to them. Cheers

Oh and I cant forget Scandinavian Music Group's " Vieläkö Soitan Banjoa?

goneforeign said...

Anon/Fuel: Thank you, you opened a whole new world for me.