Otis Taylor Assembles a Stellar Crew to Rediscover the Banjo's African Roots
Recapturing the Banjo features Guy Davis, Corey Harris, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Keb’ Mo’ and Don Vappie
“If you ask the average person where they think the five-string banjo originated, the chances are that they would say it came from Kentucky or North Carolina. The truth is that the banjo was originally an African instrument. …So the question that comes to mind is why this African instrument has been assigned to the United States. To put it another way, when did black become white?”
-- Dick Weissman, from the liner notes
The concept of America as a great melting pot is a double-edged sword. In the great sweep of cultural evolution over the past two and a half centuries, certain lines of connection and distinction have been obscured. American popular music, a hybrid and distillation of sources too numerous and diverse to mention, is perhaps one of the best examples of the difficulty in determining exactly what came from where.
The banjo, for example, is an instrument whose historical roots dig much deeper than the American folk and bluegrass traditions with which it is commonly associated. The banjo ultimately originated in Africa, and made its way to America with the African slaves who were brought to the fledgling colonies as early as the 1700s.
Bluesman and multi-instrumentalist Otis Taylor, who shatters the illusions of the status quo time and again via his uniquely haunting songcraft and musicianship, sheds new light on this centuries-old instrument with his new Telarc recording, Recapturing the Banjo. The album includes riveting performances by Taylor along with some of the most accomplished banjo players on the current roots music scene: Guy Davis, Corey Harris, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Keb’ Mo’ and Don Vappie – a group that collectively boasts an impressive array of GRAMMY Awards, Handy Awards, Blues Music Awards, a MacArthur Fellowship and numerous other accolades.
“The banjo has become so closely associated with folk singers and bluegrass players,” says Taylor. “Over the years, the instrument just lost touch with its roots, and I’m just trying to re-establish that connection.”
The musicians on this recording utilize a variety of banjo styles, notes music historian Dick Weissman, author of the album’s liner notes. Guy Davis’ version of “Little Liza Jane,” which showcases the clawhammer picking style, is probably the closest thing contemporary audiences will hear to a traditional banjo performance. Alvin Youngblood Hart performs “Deep Blue Sea” in a modified traditional style, using the sort of syncopation that’s reminiscent of Dink Roberts. Keb’ Mo’ plays with finger picks in a style reminiscent of the period where mountain banjo turned into bluegrass, while Don Vappie plays tenor banjo in a more modern version of what St. Cyr and Scott were playing in New Orleans during the 1920s. “Walk Right In,” originally penned by banjoist and jug band musician Gus Cannon, recaptures the vintage jug band feel that Cannon helped define.
Other tunes on the recording utilize contemporary blues banjo interpretations that pay homage to the work of such seminal mid-20th century blues musicians as John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. Even Jimi Hendrix fans will find a familiar touchstone in the banjo rendition of well known “Hey Joe.”
“I wanted to make an album that was historically significant,” says Taylor, “but at the same time, I didn’t want to make a record that that was too academic. It’s not a history lesson that needs to be pushed in anyone’s face. We just wanted to reconnect the music back to the people who brought it here in the first place.”
“This recording gives the listener the opportunity to understand that the banjo is more than the toe-tapping, happy and smiling stereotypical production of the minstrel era,” says Weissman. “Freed from racial stereotypes and ignorance, it offers opportunities for black musicians to recapture their heritage. This recording is a step in that direction, from a group of artists who have already made their mark as black blues revivalists.”