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Scenitunes: Petit Banjeois



Banjo player Winston Marshall spoke thus about the banjo: "We murdered it. We let it, yeah — fuck the banjo. I fucking hate the banjo." This guy was a prominent player in the hit country/bluegrass song of 2013 "I Will Wait" by Mumford @ Sons, a British group watched by at least 43 Million viewers on YouTube. Read more about the group here
So, actually things have never gotten better for the banjo.
The efforts to incorporate it as an orchestral instrument were doomed to fail. Reason? Well, musically it has been looked upon as a weak and a limited stringed instrument! But what about its history? Shouldn't we consider it as part of the American musical experience of over two hundred years?-I mean without forgetting where it came from?!
Earlier on in its turbulent history, one American music dealer wrote over a century ago: “No instrument has had to fight its way through such bitter antagonism as the banjo.” Then a banjo virtuoso took the banjo to Africa, where it came from. Vague plan, I guess. The Africans, as one would expect, were not impressed. Probably it only reminded them of how this thing had been taken to America, in the first place! The guy came back from Africa with a lot of musical and auditory experiences, an acclaimed documentary film and earned several nominations and winnings. The banjo did not positively impact local African musicians.
In the music world, you can hear the banjo in American country and/or bluegrass songs:  Dilan, Zepplin, Springsteen, The Eagles etc.
Movies that the banjo sounds can bring to your memory are most fifties and sixties Westerns such as Lee Van Cleef's Sabata but notably epic post-modern movies such as  Midnight Cowboy, Bonnie and Clyde and Deliverance.Yet, apparently, this is one hell of an instrument that is caught up in cliched and stereotyped environments and possibly will not achieve a real revival of its strutting and joyful sounds in modern music formats.




Mumford @ Sons 2013

Two things inspired this article and should be organized in 'bullets'!
  • The song Everybody's Talkin' in the opening scene of Midnight Cowboy (below). That song had my mind completely thrown back to late childhood, but there were as usual some illusions. Things may be too good to remember faithfully or not as signifcant as we thought they were. The only consolation is that records and history seldom disagree with my memories of movies. Seldom.
  • The hit country (bluegrass?) 2013 song I Will Wait by Mumford @ Sons in the second clip below.





The second clip, being quite recent, signals a kind of come-back of the banjo instrument. Although, just as much, it kind of depicts the banjo's faintness as an orchestral instrument. Or may be the player's faintness?
Unlike most instruments, the banjo has been subjected to what is normally inflicted on people, societies and so on, but not on musical instruments!
Such themes as stereotyping, racism and class where hurled on this poor instrument; four or five-stringed!
Some articles on the banjo reflect a history of contradictory views on it. Articles as exciting as Stalking the Banjo or The Secret Life of the Banjo. Just by reading these article titles you feel how much trouble this instrument has gone into.

But What Is The Banjo, Really?

The banjo is officially a 4 or 5 stringed instrument that sprang from the one-stringed instruments which were/ are abundant in Africa. It has been developed a lot after it was taken to America thanks to noteworthy musicians such as Sweeney who added the fifth string but used the banjo to mock black people (using their own instrument)! Banjo artists in modern times should be noted such as Earl Scruggs and Tony Trischka.
The banjo is not an easy instrument to play and has several complex techniques one should master to play it.
We used to know this musical instrument decades ago from watching Western or cowboy movies in Africa.
I personally, as a child, did not like its sound. I thought it was frightening just as much as it sounded happy! That the mischief and joyousness in it was only, more often than not, followed by further killing and/or bank-robing. Writes one movie reviewer on a 1970's non-cowboy movie called  Ain't them Bodies Saints, "There is also the score by Daniel Hart, which is almost comically oppressive. You've never heard such ominous banjo playing." A very common scenario in which the banjo was employed was when the villains had finished robbing the bank and started running away in a wagon with wheels actually revolving backwards and the villains were cheerful and happy with what they stole and the people they killed and the fact that no 'serious' police was following them. The scene below from Bonnie and Clyde represents this idea. The music was made by Earl Scruggs and quite essential to any intruder into the American pop culture:




The banjo seemed to make escape sound and look funny. I did not know that the contradiction between the happy, jumpy sound of the banjo and the strange feeling of apprehension that I felt with this damn instrument was actually a simulation of its history which conjured similar opposites.

Faced by the fact that the banjo was a dying pop cultural musical instrument, the virtuoso and 9 times Grammy award winner Bela Fleck took the banjo back to Africa. Why? Well, maybe just to cleanse it from stereotypes. So how did the Africans react? The Africans seem to embrace the African-American look at the banjo as associated with the tragedy of enslavement and later on its use by white people to make fun on a regular basis of black people. I tend to think of this in a caricatured or comic way. I will quote someone who said: " Whites didn't want to give it up and the Blacks didn't want to take it back!!!


Not a single African American in a banjo camp!

Here Is The (His)Story

The banjo was brought to America by enslaved Africans, as I have said earlier in brief.
I did not know that would-be slaves were allowed to pack up their favorite things which means the process of enslaving itself was not altogether bad .
The Africans, instead of being so sad as to take their lives or the lives of their captors, took their musical instrument in their journey to the unknown. WTF!
In his valuable documentary Throw Down Your Heart, Bela Fleck conveys that the banjo was one way of expressing the feeling of desperation and despair of the broken hearts of the African captives. 





Years after settling in the plantations of America, the banjo was slowly taken over by European or colonial Americans of low classes and then was gradually liked by middle class people and so on, until it occupied a prominent space in the popular culture and subsequently in the cinematic and musical scene.
A white Southerner, Mr Joe Sweeney, who learned the banjo from his black neighbor, took both the knowledge of how to build a banjo and his black neighbor’s music with him to New York. "This look at the instrument's past is simultaneously embarrassing and enlightening!", writes Carrie Cuinn in her review of the movie Give Me The Banjo 2011. But one expert thought the banjo was just 'stereotyped' away! "All of America hates banjo music" said critic, Howard Stern. "Creepy hillbillies!" as he described poor white farmers. ".. and what are hillbillies' favorite instrument? the banjo!" 
But, as I mentioned, there were defenders of the banjo. "You can’t talk about the history of the banjo if you can’t talk about racism, slavery, misogyny, appropriation, exploitation–all of the things that run counter to what we love about the banjo." said Greg Adams, an ethnomusicologist.
What happened was that, suddenly and especially in the southern states, the banjo was re-identified and laid aside as a nigga thing and people started to desert it. Read more about this here.

First published 4/9/14, 10:16 PM.








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