Hi All,

so, as the "Classic Banjo Ning" Ambassador for Germany(thanks Ian!) I will continue my work. :-)

Here in the region where I live, the "district government" (I don't know how to call it in english) is offering a "work in progress" kind of scholarship (Arbeitsstipendium) as a way to support artists during the corona shut-down. The goal is that the results will be presented in 2021. It's not very difficult to apply for and the chances to get it are pretty high.

I realized that this would be a chance to do something with banjo. My first thought was to work on a complete zither-banjo concert (trying to reproduce a 1921 performance by Jan Wien in Glasgow where he played pieces by Cammeyer). I briefed my idea with the head of an musical education institution (that also does lots of high grade concerts and have a musical instruments museum. It's where I had my first banjo recital) and he liked it. And added that it would be good to offer it to schools in the region as well. Going in that direction, I think it would be better to offer a kind of "history and development of the banjo". How it would practically work is that I would do one concert, or presentation, in that institution and then offer it to different schools in the region.

In my opinion, the banjo, with all its variations is the most divers instrument in the world, with the exeption of percussion instruments maybe. So naturally it's easy to get lost in all of that, what one would have to present and what not. I mean, is it important to show a mandolin banjo as well as a banjolin (same size but with four strings?) Or what about the wooden bodied instruments with a shorter fifth string? Or a Chicago tuned four string banjo compared to a four string banjo used in Irish music? Then on the other hand, if I mention all these differently stringed banjos, do I also need to adress all the instruments with a skin top that did and do exist in the middle and far east and in africa?

Well, as you can see, it can easily get to big for the scope of a 60 min presentation for 10 year-olds....

So, here's my rough plan:

Play something on the Akonting

Talk about the banjo evolving in Africa

Play a gourd banjo and explain it

Talk about Joel Sweeney

Play something on a tack-head early banjo

Play and sing a song with an early banjo

Present the "silver spun fretted banjo" (playing some music. Something by Ellis? Joe Morley?)

Present the zither banjo and play a piece (Cammeyer)

Present other banjo instruments (mandolin banjo, banjeurine, ukulele banjo etc)

"American banjo" (clawhammer, two finger picking)

Jazz banjo and Irish banjo (4 string banjos)

Bluegrass or "modern" banjo

Is that enough? Is it to much? Am I missing something or are there things I can leave out? Is there something that have to be in the program? If some of you have been doing similar things, I would love to hear about your experiences.

The main goal is of course that the kids love it and all of them want to play banjo afterwards!

An added problem is that there are few german sources for banjos, that it was ever played or popular here. The big instrument making centers here in Gemany all made banjos well in to the 50ies and 60ies, even in the DDR, so there must have been an interest in playing them. I did read somewhere that Joel Sweeney toured in Germany but I haven't managed to find any German references to that (now, that would be a subject for a phd!)

I'm sorry for the ranting and rambling and the long text but it is important to me and I would love to do this thing right and present the banjo in its best light.

I would love to hear ALL your thoughts and ideas on this subject!

All the best,

Pär

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A few thoughts. Much of what you have listed is American banjo. Clawhammer and 2 finger old time techniques are not more American than jazz banjo or bluegrass for instance.  So certainly present those styles but please label them accurately. 

Bluegrass banjo is not the equivalent of modern banjo. Much banjoes has happened since 1945. Again this is a question of labeling, not a suggestion that these things not be presented.

There is no instrument which is an "Irish banjo".  All sorts of 4 and 5 string banjos have been used in Ireland for playing Irish music. It is the tuning that has been modified, not the instrument itself.  For instance the same Vegaphone or Gibson  TB 3 or Paramount Leader that might be used to play chords in a jazz band would be used to play Irish dance tunes and songs. Sometimes the tuning isn't even modified.  

I have other thoughts but maybe that's enough for now.  Well OK, one more:  I suggest you present what personally interests you. What engages you. If you are really "into it" so will the audience be.  If you present something that you really don't care about or know much about the audience at some level will know this.  If you love some kind of music or type of instrument the audience will feel this and they will want to stay and listen and be with you. (provided that you play pretty much ok. Perfect playing is not required)

It sounds like a good project.

A few points to consider...

According to the recent work "Roots and Branches" there is no evidence that the banjo is a direct descendent of the Jola Ekonting.  Refer to page 35 "The fact remains that hard evidence has yet to be found in the historical record to show that the banjo us unilineally descended directly from one or more specific members of West Africa's vast family of traditional plucked spike lutes."

I believe the association of the banjo as we know it to the Jola Ekonting is emotional, and as of yet, not based in historical fact. Obviously one must keep an open mind, but the fact (or lack of facts) remain that currently there is no evidence to support the "banjo as we know it" is a direct descendent of the Jola Ekonting claim.   I understand that 'we' want to find that one missing piece of the puzzle, yet that piece is still missing.

The Jola Ekonting shares many similarities to "the banjo", but so do many other instruments.

It might be best presented as one of many examples of proto-banjo gourd plucked lutes and not THE proto-banjo.

The banjo and Africa... again, "Roots and Branches", page 21 "The findings of recent research make it increasingly clear that the African roots of the banjo can be traced to the vast family of approximately eighty known traditions of plucked spike lutes found across West Africa, which encompass a broad diversity of distinctive ethnic forms.  However, those same findings have also made it increasingly clear that the banjo is not African in origin, but, rather African American.

In other words, "the banjo" developed in the Americas (north and south) and not on the African Continent. 

Silver spun banjo section.  If you jump to Morley you are skipping nearly 40+ years, 1855 to 1895.  I would recommend looking at some of the American published music within that time span. Perhaps play a few pieces in order of decade.  One notable 'landmark' was the publication of L'Infanta March.  This seemed to set off a new era of music for banjo in 1893.

I argue (with good reason) that the tenor banjo is NOT a descendent of the "banjo", rather an extension of the mandolin and belongs with that group of instruments and not what we call the banjo.  Nor are banjo ukes or mandolin banjos "banjos".  All of these are instruments independent of the banjo and only constructed to take advantage of the superior volume and tone of the banjo.

The "plectrum banjo" is part of the banjo tradition in that it is a direct extension of the regular banjo.

I would also argue that "clawhammer" (a relatively recent term) would fall into the stroke style category of the early banjo.

From the point of view of technique and tuning you make a valid point.  You are also mostly correct from a historical point of view .These other instruments were created for reasons you mention and were offered for sale to players of mandolin family instruments.  From a longer historical point of view maybe not. If the starting point of "banjo" is the USA you are entirely right. But if the banjo is but one species of skin-covered string instruments with a floating bridge and a relatively short sustain and a characteristic sound, then maybe not. The sound of banjo, dramyen, rabab, sanxian, etc are all varieties of a single type of sound, much more like each other than any is like a guitar or mandolin or lute.

From the point of view of lutherie/instrument building you are on less solid ground. Tenor banjos, five-string banjos, plectrum banjos, mandolin-banjos, guitar-banjos, tango banjos and other kinds of banjos were built in the same workshops by the same craftsmen using the same techniques and lutherie skills, with the metal parts for all types made by the same machinists, parts which were/are mostly interchangeable. For instance a tension hook for a tenor banjo is not a different item from a tension hook for a 5-string banjo from the same factory or workshop. Decades later tenor banjos were  been taken apart ("cannibalized" according to some [as if one banjo ate another!], the necks put aside and new five string necks built and attached. If the tenors were truly a different species this would not work so splendidly. A late 20th century development (in Wales!) was the gathering of abandoned tenor necks and the attachment of these to newly constructed pots to create tenor banjos!   None of this could have happened if the tenor was truly an independent species of instrument.   

Joel Hooks said:

I argue (with good reason) that the tenor banjo is NOT a descendent of the "banjo", rather an extension of the mandolin and belongs with that group of instruments and not what we call the banjo.  Nor are banjo ukes or mandolin banjos "banjos".  All of these are instruments independent of the banjo and only constructed to take advantage of the superior volume and tone of the banjo.

The "plectrum banjo" is part of the banjo tradition in that it is a direct extension of the regular banjo.

Thanks guys. All valid points and will definately help me be able to make a better program!

I actually do know most of the things you pointed out, like that there is no such thing as an "Irish" banjo, and that the ekonting/akonting is not to be considered the sole inspiration or role model for the banjo. I was, and usually am, just to lazy or thinking that it doesn't really matter if I don't point out every small differens and every small detail. Thinking it just matters if the listener get the big picture.  But of course it does it makes a difference. And I'm giving out wrong information, which is bad! So, thanks for pointing that out. I will take care to present things according to my knowledge and the latest research.

The fact that most of what I mentioned is indeed American banjo playing and should be labeled so actually didn't really cross my mind. I guess it's because it's normaly labeled "American Old-Time Music" but not "American Jazz Music" or "American Bluegrass". So thanks for pointing that out, Jody!

I do believe, with my limited "research" that the banjo did come to life in the Americas, the ideas and memories of the many similar instruments excisting in Africa merging with new impulses from European traditions into something new.

So what about the playing technique/style that we today call classic banjo? Did it evolve independently from each other in England and in the US or was there always a cross-breeding? Or did US lead the development with UK following? What about other countries (France, for instance)? (I notice now that I really do need to do some more reading on the subject...)

The idea to play one piece from each decade from 1855 to, lets say, 1910 is a very good idea! And thanks for pointing me to the L'Infanta March.

So, I stop here for now. I have to be off. I'm sure more questions and thoughts will follow.

Thanks again for your input!

It's not that I am interested in America getting credit where credit is due. It's that by labeling certain things "American" there is an implication that everything else is not. I thought that was misleading.  But I was not aware that (American) old-time music is ever called "American Old-Time Music". But it makes sense that in Europe in would be called that. Of course in the USA it's not called that.  

Classic banjo technique seems to have been at first imported to the UK along with players from the American continent, at least two of whom were Canadian. But new developments may have arisen in the UK. Joe Morley may have invented some new ways of fingering and picking. It looks that way to me. There may have been changes in how chord positions are indicated on the printed page that arose as well. I'm not sure of this.



Pär Engstrand said:

Thanks guys. All valid points and will definately help me be able to make a better program!

I actually do know most of the things you pointed out, like that there is no such thing as an "Irish" banjo, and that the ekonting/akonting is not to be considered the sole inspiration or role model for the banjo. I was, and usually am, just to lazy or thinking that it doesn't really matter if I don't point out every small differens and every small detail. Thinking it just matters if the listener get the big picture.  But of course it does it makes a difference. And I'm giving out wrong information, which is bad! So, thanks for pointing that out. I will take care to present things according to my knowledge and the latest research.

The fact that most of what I mentioned is indeed American banjo playing and should be labeled so actually didn't really cross my mind. I guess it's because it's normaly labeled "American Old-Time Music" but not "American Jazz Music" or "American Bluegrass". So thanks for pointing that out, Jody!

I do believe, with my limited "research" that the banjo did come to life in the Americas, the ideas and memories of the many similar instruments excisting in Africa merging with new impulses from European traditions into something new.

So what about the playing technique/style that we today call classic banjo? Did it evolve independently from each other in England and in the US or was there always a cross-breeding? Or did US lead the development with UK following? What about other countries (France, for instance)? (I notice now that I really do need to do some more reading on the subject...)

The idea to play one piece from each decade from 1855 to, lets say, 1910 is a very good idea! And thanks for pointing me to the L'Infanta March.

So, I stop here for now. I have to be off. I'm sure more questions and thoughts will follow.

Thanks again for your input!

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