Hello and Happy New Year,

I am hoping some of you may be able help me with several queries.

I am based in New Zealand (Wellington at present but spent most of my life in Auckland and until recently also Paeroa). I am trying to find out more about the history of the banjo in New Zealand.  I have been casually researching for over 20 years (even sent Hal Allert some digital copies of photos and things when his seemed to be the only online site I could find with anything related to classic banjo). 

I have come to the banjo through my interest in dance bands and spent most of the 1990s doing extensive research into the dance bands of the 1920s in NZ.  I ran my own semi professional band, Brett's New Internationals from 1994 - 2011.  I play many instruments including having played the tenor banjo for about 25 years.  I have "seen the light" and taken up classic style banjo about 5 years ago when both a suitable instrument found me and the resources on this site became known to me.  I am indebted to this site for opening up my awareness of this style of playing.

We have a great online resource here called "Papers Past" which features searchable digital scans of many of our NZ Newspapers and magazines.  I am using this along with other digitised material such as the Cadenza, Crescendo and BMG magazines (as well as other things I have discovered in my research) to get a better picture of what was going on here, and am slowly creating a list of all pre WW2 banjo references.  Concerts, teaching adverts, radio broadcasts are plentiful and I am getting a picture of how prevalent the banjo was here. I've chosen the war as a cut off date for now, as it seems that things in the banjo world here changed markedly during that time with most classic and four string styles fading into relative obscurity as firstly jazz and steel guitar and latterly country and folk and bluegrass banjo styles gained almost total domination of the banjo scene.  

Following the introduction and popularisation of the instrument here - mostly through touring minstrel shows in the 1850s - 1880s, the tours of  the Fisk Jubilee Singers who featured banjoists, and solo tours by others such as Hosea Easton, a number of notable banjo local performers came to prominence here, amongst these several were composers and at least two of them published some of their own works. 

I am wondering if any members here know of any of their works, or possibly have ever found copies.  None of our libraries, museums or archives appear to hold copies including the archive at Musical Heritage New Zealand where I voluntarily work.

Firstly, I would be grateful for any information relating to, photos of, or sheet music by Louis Bloy.  He was a Christchurch based professional banjoist and played both finger style and (in later years) plectrum banjo between the 1890s and his death in the 1940s.  He frequently toured both New Zealand and Australia in vaudeville (variety theatre), was regularly broadcast on radio, taught a large number of Christchurch people to play the instrument and ran a number of different ensembles comprised mostly (but not exclusively) of his own students.

Secondly, I am looking for any information on Joseph Wright.  He was also a banjoist (and mandolinist) based in Christchurch in the early years of the 20th Century, but moved to California, USA in 1914.  Prior to this he was a regular correspondent to the Crescendo magazine but he and his son who was also a noted banjo soloist appear to disappear shortly after.  He established a number of ensembles, also in Christchurch, and had a business as a professional music teacher there.  He composed several pieces, but so far no copies have come to light.  His most notable work according to a BMG article from the 1950s, being his Zealandia Waltz.  (Zealandia was a common term used about NZ in the early 20th century and was sometimes represented by a mythical female image similar to Britannia).

I have a Canadian based friend (plectrum banjoist) Greg Sumner, who introduced me to Rex and Margaret Hills of Christchurch.  Rex was a keen plectrum banjoist (one of only a dozen or so jazz banjoists in NZ in the 1990s and 2000s) and was quite a regular attendee of the FIGA conventions in the US.  Sadly both Margaret and Rex died a number of years ago.  Although he didn't play finger style and wasn't much of a reader, Rex had a large collection of banjo music and was also trying to discover more about New Zealand made banjos from the 1910s or 20s called Thompson Banjos.  I have never come across anything about them, but Rex had several instruments and parts from some   I don't know what has happened to his collection, but hope to find out more.  I think he said they may have been made in the South Island.  I only met Rex a couple of years before the Christchurch earthquakes.  Both he and Margaret were considerably effected by them and I regret never following up with Rex about this or other leads he may have had before his death.  But I am also wondering if any group members here could have come across Thompson Banjos.

I do hope some one will have something of interest to me in these areas, and have plenty of other leads I made seek help with in future.  But for now thank everyone who has read through all of this and send my very best wishes for 2021,

Brett Lowe

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And here is a photo of a Minstrel troupe in Opanake in the 1870s

And an odd photo of a banjoist in a Maori settlement on Kapiti Island (just North of Wellington) - which is now uninhabited (by humans at least) and a Conservation Department Reserve for native wildlife.

And the last photo I have so far of NZ banjos from this era - another of an unidentified visitor in the Williams' garden again (Napier)


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