Monday, October 17, 2011

A Lady and her Banjos

By Randii Oliver
Cheick Hamala Diabate', Randii and Guy Davis
My first banjo was a Japanese made instrument that I bought in a pawn shop.  A "Kasuga", made sometime back in the 1970's.  For years I kept picking it up and trying to learn how to play, then putting it back in it's case, leaving it forgotten until the next time.

I fell in love with the banjo as a child, back during the folk music revival era, when Pete Seeger was singing songs about humanity, compassion,  and peace.  (He still does, you know.)  I tried, unsuccessfully, to learn to play other instruments throughout the years, but the banjo calmly waited for me.

Eventually, I learned that the banjo is an African instrument, created by slaves in the African Diaspora - my ancestors, and is part of the "lute" family of instruments found all over West Africa.  After a spiritual initiation in Zimbabwe, I decided that it was time for me to take my banjo out of the garage and finally learn how to play it - to reclaim my heritage and honor my Ancestors.  Upon that decision, my Ancestors started "gifting" me instruments to learn to play.  All of them are banjo Ancestors.

I joined a web forum, "Black Banjo Then and Now," where I found musicians, historians and musicologists, with a wealth of information about black banjo players, their music, and their playing techniques.  All of whom are extremely supportive of people of African descent reclaiming our instrument, by learning how to play it.

I suddenly found myself in the position of having to rapidly learn everything about the history of the banjo, so I could do a presentation for an audience at my job for our Juneteenth celebration.  I had to quickly learn how to play all of these instruments that my Ancestors had sent to me.  I wanted people to hear and understand the how the banjo had evolved from an instrument that was only played by black slaves for over 200 years, into the modern, metal, industrial-age machine, that is the darling of white Bluegrass banjoists.  Sometimes the best incentive to learn is to have to teach the subject you are studying.

A few months ago, I went to a week long Blues festival and "Blues Camp" where I was privileged to be immersed in Blues music, Blues musicians, and Blues Banjo.  I learned something about African picking techniques on modern banjo from Cheick Hamala Diabate', a Mande Griot - who just "happened" to have an N'goni he was selling (another Banjo Ancestor), but only after he played it onstage with Taj Mahal!  I am genetically traced to the Mende - which is a branch of the Mande people.  So I am learning to play N'goni under the direction of a Griot who is a "genetic cousin"!  (Griots are cultural historians, teachers, and advisors to kings.  The Griot profession is inherited, and the Diabate' line of Griots includes Tourmani Dibate' - a renowned Kora master.)

Back Row:  Modern Ekonting (note modern tuning pegs), Modern Bluegrass Banjo, Replica Minstrel Banjo (note: all banjos were originally fretless)
Front Row:  "Didlake Style" Slave Banjo with 4 strings (the first banjos (that have been found intact) had 4 strings - 3 long, one short "drone" string), N'goni (from Cheick Hamala Diabate'), Malian Gita (percussion instrument made from a calabash gourd)

All of these instruments are part of the African "Lute" family of instruments!
Now, at the request of my Ancestors, I am on a pilgrimage home to Guinea-Bissau, to meet my people - The Balanta and Fula.  I am also in search of another related Banjo Ancestor - reportedly called the Kusunde' - which is played by the Balanta.  The Kusunde' has only been reported on by one person, who encountered it as a 3 stringed instrument which is similar to the Ekonting.  My goal is to learn how to play this instrument, which is related directly to my ancestry.

I don't know where this path is ultimately leading me, but I have learned that when the Ancestors ask me to do something, things always work out when I shut up and do what I am told!


1 comment:

Lise said...

Love this.