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It's been said that there are two types of people in this world: those who like the sound of the banjo and those who don't...
If you do, you'll be pleased to hear that coming to The Barbican and a few other UK venues this Spring is Blues: Recapturing the Banjo - the Otis Taylor-driven project that will see him performing live with Guy Davis, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Don Vappie & Corey Harris. The London show will also feature Malian musician Bassekou Kouyate on ngoni, the ancestor of the banjo.
We have two tickets to give away to their London show at the Barbican on Monday 28th April.
Recapturing the Banjo is a musical voyage which celebrates the one instrument to survive the Atlantic slave trade, the banjo, and become one of the most popular and distinctly American of instruments. Originally played by slaves who built banjos out of scrap materials in an attempt to recreate the West African ngoni, the banjo has gone on to play a pivotal role in jazz, blues, country and bluegrass. This project re-unites the banjo with its African roots, with beautifully crafted, evocative music.
“If you ask the average person where they think the five-string banjo originated, the chances are that they would say it came from Kentucky or North Carolina. The truth is that the banjo was originally an African instrument... So the question that comes to mind is why this African instrument has been assigned to the United States. To put it another way, when did black become white?”- Dick Weissman, from the liner notes
The concept of America as a great melting pot is a double-edged sword. In the great sweep of cultural evolution over the past two and a half centuries, certain lines of connection and distinction have been obscured. American popular music, a hybrid and distillation of sources too numerous and diverse to mention, is perhaps one of the best examples of the difficulty in determining exactly what came from where.
The banjo, for example, is an instrument whose historical roots dig much deeper than the American folk and bluegrass traditions with which it is commonly associated. The banjo ultimately originated in Africa, and made its way to America with the African slaves who were brought to the fledgling colonies as early as the 1700s.
Taylor sheds new light on this centuries-old instrument with his new Telarc recording, Recapturing the Banjo. The album includes performances by Taylor along with some of the most accomplished banjo players on the current roots music scene: Guy Davis, Corey Harris, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Keb’ Mo’ and Don Vappie – a group that collectively boasts an impressive array of GRAMMY Awards, Handy Awards, Blues Music Awards, a MacArthur Fellowship and numerous other accolades.
“The banjo has become so closely associated with folk singers and bluegrass players,” says Taylor. “Over the years, the instrument just lost touch with its roots, and I’m just trying to re-establish that connection.”
The musicians on the recording utilize a variety of banjo styles, notes music historian Dick Weissman, author of the album’s liner notes. Guy Davis’ version of “Little Liza Jane,” which showcases the clawhammer picking style, is probably the closest thing contemporary audiences will hear to a traditional banjo performance. Alvin Youngblood Hart performs “Deep Blue Sea” in a modified traditional style, using the sort of syncopation that’s reminiscent of Dink Roberts. Keb’ Mo’ plays with finger picks in a style reminiscent of the period where mountain banjo turned into bluegrass, while Don Vappie plays tenor banjo in a more modern version of what St. Cyr and Scott were playing in New Orleans during the 1920s. “Walk Right In,” originally penned by banjoist and jug band musician Gus Cannon, recaptures the vintage jug band feel that Cannon helped define.
Other tunes on the recording utilize contemporary blues banjo interpretations that pay homage to the work of such seminal mid-20th century blues musicians as John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. Even Jimi Hendrix fans will find a familiar touchstone in the banjo rendition of well known “Hey Joe.”
“I wanted to make an album that was historically significant,” says Taylor, “but at the same time, I didn’t want to make a record that that was too academic. It’s not a history lesson that needs to be pushed in anyone’s face. We just wanted to reconnect the music back to the people who brought it here in the first place.”
“This recording gives the listener the opportunity to understand that the banjo is more than the toe-tapping, happy and smiling stereotypical production of the minstrel era,” says Weissman. “Freed from racial stereotypes and ignorance, it offers opportunities for black musicians to recapture their heritage. This recording is a step in that direction, from a group of artists who have already made their mark as black blues revivalists.”
Bassekou Kouyate has been described – by none other than Taj Mahal - as a genius. He is also held as living proof that one of the sources of the blues is his region of Segu in Mali. He has also championed the ngoni, the ancestor of the banjo – a stringed instrument with a hollowed-out, canoe-shaped piece of wood as a body (with dried animal skin stretched over it like a drum). Unlike the kora, whose history goes back only a few hundred years, the ngoni is believed to have been the main instrument for accompanying griot stories as far back as the reign of Soundiata Keita in the 12th Century.