Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Hi, everyone. I have been at work on a CD of my peculiar approach to early banjo. It's called "American Akonting," and it's available on cdbaby.com. There is already a video of me playing Gottschalk's "The Banjo" here (and that's on the CD, too), but I also recorded his earlier piece "Bamboula," and so I just made a video of myself playing it, since that seems to be the way to share this sort of thing these days. Because evidence on actual African-American banjo playing before 1900 is so rare, I think that these bits of evidence are important, even if it requires a bit of invention to pull them together. I hope you find it interesting.

Views: 164

Comment by Chris Prieto on December 11, 2016 at 7:59pm
Wow that was awesome. Super funky and refreshing
Comment by Tom Taggart on December 12, 2016 at 2:41pm

Great playing Paul. I also find the construction of your banjo interesting. It is the first time I have seen one built "upside down" in that the tuning pegs are on the tail of the instrument rather than at the top of the neck. 

Comment by Chris Prieto on December 12, 2016 at 2:43pm
There's guy here in down town that plays mean blues on a guitar made out of old luggage bag and he has it strung with tuners on the bottom. Very cool stuff indeed.
Comment by Chris Prieto on December 12, 2016 at 3:08pm

Oh dang I only watched video from the latest post on home page and didnt see your note below the video! I have purchased a digital copy :)

I've been really into playing and repairing djembes as of late and have been listening to *lots* of traditional african music and the way you play this almost has the same rhythmic/tonal(?) quality as some of the vocal african music while having a bit of blues funk thing going on. No shoes, runnin wild, huck finn goodness.

I actually dug around and listened to the piano version. very cool stuff.

Comment by Paul Ely Smith on December 12, 2016 at 4:15pm

Thanks for the kind words.  The first gourd banjo I made c.1991 can be seen on my YouTube performance of Gottschalk's "The Banjo" (it was discussed here years ago--http://minstrelbanjo.ning.com/video/l-m-gottschalks-the-banjo-on-a?...).  It was pretty, and looked more like an historic banjo, but it was very quiet!  I could make a video, but I couldn't play with other musicians--that wasn't working for me...  So right after I tried to record it (and there is one track on my CD that does use it), I decided that I had to make a new one.  A larger head was an obvious step, and I decided to partially brace the skin head (behind the bridge)--this is a traditional West African lute design idea--the neck continues under the head, supporting it (unlike the standard banjo where is passes through the hoop under the head) and it's very useful not just to focus the sound, but also to accommodate changes in humidity.  I don't do this exactly in the way it is done on ngoni or akonting, but you can see the idea (here is a link to my blog from 2011, showing the construction--http://palouserivermusic.blogspot.com/2011/11/bracing-banjo-head-go...).  In any case, this instrument has all the power that the first one lacked.  I decided that I had to have mechanical tuners, though.  I have other uses for this instrument that require quick, precise tuning... I decided to put the tuners on the tailpiece end for two reasons--they are sort-of concealed and the neck of my banjo looks more akonting-esque, and secondly, they counterbalance the instrument so it's very stable in my lap. 

Comment by Chris Prieto on December 12, 2016 at 4:33pm

oh wow I may have to try that some time. I make gourdies too and one of the major downside is no mater what I do they all sound mucky on the beach after about 30 minutes (im in san diego). how far up does that bump protrude upward?

Comment by Paul Ely Smith on December 12, 2016 at 4:57pm

I don't know that the gourd banjo can made that will keep its shape on a foggy morning in Solana Beach, but that little brace thing rises up about 1.5mm from the plane of the rim.  One thing you could try is to go ahead and run the neck entirely across the head, and then see what you could remove--that was an experiment I was not patient enough to do.  Many West African lutes have the neck run most of the way across the head, but not to the end.  Then a hole is cut in the head that functions as a sound hole and the strings come out of the end of the neck through that hole.  That might be even more flexible for dealing with changing humidity.  One thing I also do that also might be a good idea for a beach-worthy gourd banjo is to finish the inside.  My go-to instrument finish is Birchwood-Casey Tru-Oil, and I worked a bunch into the inside of the gourd (it drank a LOT of the stuff).  Have a fish taco especial at Rubio's for me.

Comment by Strumelia on December 12, 2016 at 6:42pm

Great playing Paul.  Bravo on making that instrument- it's fabulous.

There are many old Tennessee music boxes (rectangular large box dulcimers) that have the 'tuning pegs' (really just big screw eyes) at the 'tail end' of the instrument...and just the string pins at the fretting end.  Confuses folk to no end...especially on instruments with frets...lol

This video you made is just wonderful- so alive and real.

Comment by Paul Ely Smith on December 14, 2016 at 12:39pm

Thanks, Lisa...It took me awhile.  I kept making modifications to the instrument that changed the sound/playability for the better (the most recent was 2015's scoop at the end of the fingerboard), and so I found myself re-recording things more than once.  Nice to have it done...

Comment by Strumelia on December 14, 2016 at 12:46pm

Paul, can you tell me the overall diameter of that gourd?  And the diameter of the skin surface that vibrates?  Just wondering how big those dimensions are.


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