Notes From Banjourneys
The banjo had been calling to me long before I turned to pick it up and sound it a little over 30 years ago. I have been grappling with it ever since, first in Ohio and West Virginia, and later in Virginia, North Carolina, Illinois, all before I took up residence in Florida a decade ago. The banjo has gleefully lead me from the beaten path, into festival fields up until dawn, across rutted roads and streams into rural homes to meet elders eager to share, and into communities of good humor and passion for the well placed phrase, the unexpected turn, and the skip of the beat. Old-time banjo has filled my life with an assortment of colorful characters, eccentrics, and peculiar geniuses. What seemed odd then feels like old home now.
A series of unlikely and intersecting events led me in Gambia in July 2007 to learn the music of the Jola akonting (ekonting), a West African 3-stringed banjo ancestor. With Daniel Jatta as my guide, Remi and Ekona Diatta as my patient instructors, I held and then played the instrument at once both familiar and incomprehensible. I returned in 2008 for my second glimpse of the great unknown, and finding myself in Senegal on southern shore of the Cassamance river, in Kanjunka, the birthplace of the ekonting according to the Jola of Mlomp.
These currents infuse Banjourneys.
I am lucky to good friends who are fine musicians to help on this effort. Bob Carlin, recorded, produced and engineered the project. I am joined by Mike Eberle and Dave Forbes on fiddles. Mike is the pride of Columbus, Ohio. He has an amazing facility to pick-up melodies and create harmonies, no matter what the genre. Dave is a perfect old-time fiddler, who plays with drive and precision, and rock-solid rhythm. On this CD, I play 5 and 6 string fretted and fretless banjos, as well as a cello banjo, the “banjonting” (a hybrid between the akonting and the banjo) and fiddle (not all at the same time). The music features traditional fiddle banjo duets, twin fiddle pieces, banjo solos in both the minstrel and old-time traditions, and fiddle/akonting duets, which blend old-time sensibilities and with Jola traditions, to simulate what it might have sounded like when these two cultures first met. Despite how eclectic this may all sound, the CD holds together quite well. I expect that banjo fans and old-time enthusiasts will enjoy it, as well as those who appreciate well-informed roots and acoustic music.
The cover was drawn by Roz Chast, illustrator and cartoonist for the New Yorker, while the rest of the package was provided by Tina Riedel, an award winning artist from Boston.
About the Music:
DOCOR LEVY"S WALK-AROUND is a tune that popped out of my head whole for the cello banjo. BELECHA/MARIAM SAJOE is a medley of Jola songs. According to Daniel, Remi and Ekona, Belecha is a young beautiful girl who is asked by her boyfriend to kneel in front of him in public so that the community will know that she is in love with him so that nobody else can take her from him. According to Remi, Miriam Sajoe is a beautiful woman who disappointed a suitor by keeping company with another man. In the song, the jilted suitor is saying, “My beautiful girl named Miriam Sajoe left me but I won’t blame her. I will just have to accept that it is the will of God.” A number of related tunes exist with the title “SANDY BOYS” including a lovely version by Eddn Hammons. Ours is not connected with any specific source. The incomparable Ola Belle Reed inspired BOATS UP THE RIVER. LATE FOR THE DANCE springs from Garry Harrison who, according to the notes on the Indian Creek Delta Boys II, learned it from a tape made around 1955 by Roscoe Lance. MUMBAH SUDITAN is about Mumbah, a tough guy who “when he beats you he bluffs like a British Soldier” according to Daniel Jatta. I first heard OLD PAINT on Loudon Wainwright III’s second LP. It seemed to settle in on the fiddle, and fits well in both AEac# and AEae. The inspiration for CINDY is Norman Edmunds. WALK INTO THE PARLOR/WALK INTO DE PARLOR/GRAPEVINE REEL are minstrel melodies from Frank Converse and Tom Biriggs. They are played on the cello banjo, tuned an octave below modern standard at aDAC#E. IAYDiAY/OHLIBILAL: In Iaydiay, the boyfriend is advising a woman named Iaydah “to take it easy with life.” “She has to be with him, taking things step-by-step...” according to Remi as interpreted by Daniel. I am not sure what Ohlibilal is about. ROCK THE CRADLE JOE is a common banjo tune I learned long ago from Steve Slottow. It has morphed over the years, even more so when played on the 6-string banjo. The earliest recording of CHINESE BREAKDOWN was by the Scottdale String Band, March 21, 1927 in Atlanta. Earnest East inspired ours. NO EXPECTATIONS is a Mick Jagger/Keith Richards composition recorded live with open microphones set between the band members of the Rolling Stones. Mick said “That was the last time I remember Brian really being totally involved in something that was really worth doing”. I created STEPHEN FOSTER"S NOCTURNE while imagining that remarkable man restless, melancholic, and yet still hopeful near the end of his days. Garry Harrison and the Indian Creek Delta Boys learned CROW CREEK from Illinois fiddler Stella Elam of Brownstown, Bond County. SEMBE celebrates a man by the same name who is strong and tall.
For more information regarding the Jola and the akonting/ekonting, check http://www.arts.ufl.edu/CAHRE/senegambia.asp This site includes more than 60 videosfrom my first trip to Gambia in 2007
I am grateful for the generostiy of Mike Eberle and David Forbes/ Thanks also to Bob Carlin for bringing out the best in us, and to Wayne Rogers, the Lion of Gold Tone. Special thanks to Tina Riedel for her uncompromising integrity and extraordinary vision, and to incomparable Roz Chast for jumping in and never looking back. I am blessed with the support of my wife Sandy Engel Levy, and our totally rad children, Mickey and Lizy.
Apology to accidental customers: To those who bought this CD thinking it was about saying “Good Day” in French while traveling, I am sorry. That would be “Bonjourneys”. Unfortunately, once the package has been opened, it cannot be returned.
Also check http://shipsofthesea.org/video for information on how to play the ekonting featuring Sana Ndiaye, and a panel discussion regarding the the akonting/ekonting featuring Paul Sedgewick, Greg Adams, Sana Ndiaye, Tony Pizzo, John Catches and Chuck Levy.
Another worthwhile site is http://www.myspace.com/akonting