Banjo Jamboree celebrates 50th anniversary in 2022 

Dubbed “The oldest Bluegrass Festival in Europe,” the Czech bluegrass community will celebrate the 50th annual Banjo Jamboree festival later this this month – June 17-18, 2022 – in the town of Čáslav, about 70 km east of Prague.

Headlining this year’s Jamboree is fiddler and singer Casey Driessen, with other big attractions including Red Wine (Italy); two long-standing Czech bluegrass ensembles Poutníci and COP; and Professional Deformation, who have performed with Driessen in the past.

One Way Rider — Professional Deformation with Casey Driessen

Irena Přibylová, lecturer, music publicist (notably in bluegrass and country music) including editor of Folk & Country magazine, and instigator and co-producer of the CD IBMA Presents Long Journey Home, A Collection of Bluegrass From Around the World, provides this overview of some aspects of the Banjo Jamboree …. 

“I think that the first foreign banjo player there was Henri de Ridder from the Netherlands in 1985, with the Country Trash. He is a left-handed player! There came other bluegrass bands from the Netherlands, from East Germany, from Austria, Germany, Belgium, Sweden, France, and Spain, not to speak about Slovakia, after we split in 1992. As to native speakers of English, they mostly came after 2000, US players with the support of the US Embassy in Prague. Of the big names, these were Bill Keith, Eddie Adcock, Tony Furtado, and Alison Brown. Among others, Ron Rigsby with the Tennessee Gentlemen, Larry Wilder and the Stumptown Stars, Don Rigsby and band, Reno and Harrell and band (the sons of famous fathers), Monroe Crossing from Montana, from Canada came a female band, Oh My Darling, from the UK, Dan Walsh. There were hundreds of Czech (and Slovak) banjo players there, the late Jan Macák – festival founder, with banjoists Dalibor Cidlinský and Petr Kuklík, Marko Čermák of Greenhorns and White Stars groups, who gained in 2007 the Distinguished Achievement Award  from the IBMA for his pioneering banjo work, Tomáš Slavíček who moved to jazz and classical banjo from bluegrass music and emigrated from Czechoslovakia……several local female bluegrass bands with ladies on banjo….over the years, the festival was held in three different cities: Kopidlno, Strakonice, and Čáslav.

…in 1988, the country hosted Tony Trischka and his Skyline band, after it Tony came several times, but he did not make it to Banjo Jamboree. The same with Béla Fleck, he came with his Flecktones several times, they played in various prestigious halls, but they did not make it to Banjo Jamboree. Both Tony and Béla have been quite popular among Czech and Slovak banjo players.

…there were other events and venues in the country visited by other famous banjo players after 1989 and after 2000, but not everybody happened to come in June for Banjo Jamboree…(and for the little money they have…for the last two decades, the main organizer is the Bluegrass Association of the Czech Republic, a non-profit organization with non-paid president (banjo player Petr Brandejs) and non-paid representatives).

Petr Brandejs, Chairman of the CzBMA, a proud co-organizer of the Banjo Jamboree, shares some of his experiences in the form of a letter …. 

My dear Banjo Jamboree,

I was 2.5 year old when you were born. We had to wait for another about twelve years to meet each other but our very first encounter was very inspiring and you opened the whole new world to me.

And I am still dwelling in it.

You showed me right away quite a lot of surreal experiences and things I hadn’t seen before: stars and heroes of Czech bluegrass music in action and drunk later on, people jamming old-time banjo music around the campfire, attempts to somehow share different Czech versions of lyrics to New Grass Revival material. You let me experience playing music right away with complete strangers and listening to Dutch band-members rehearsing and commenting on each other’s music in English. And then much more during the following years.

Many musicians from our early encounters later became my tutors, jamming buddies, friends, and band mates. Being with you slowly changed from an exploration and absorbing as much as possible to the desire to play at the Banjo Jamboree one day. And then you became a sort of a yearly home-coming and a family-like get-together.

Later on, when you needed some support and help, I felt honored and gave you gladly some of my spare time back during the last two decades. We brought to you some world class heroes and we hopefully managed to keep the good jamming-sharing-admiring spirit alive.

So it’s your 50th edition this year and I’m happy that you (and I) are still around. I believe you after all these years have the power to inspire the newcomers and change their lives forever as well as make the old familiar figures feel at home and happy.

Long live you, the Banjo Jamboree!

Přibylová adds … 

“The first banjo gathering in the little town of Kopidlno, East Bohemia, Czechoslovakia, of five regional bluegrass bands was on June 30, 1973. In Czechoslovakia then, there were various festivals, competitions, and club meetings of folk and country music before where 5-string banjo was used. First 5-string banjo instrument in the country is documented around 1962, but nobody knew how to play it. Then came the personal visit and tour of Pete Seeger in 1964, and a rare visit of Bob Yellin in Prague, playing for a fashion show in 1967: several Prague musicians met him privately and consulted with him. Between 1964 and 1973, there originated about 4 professional country and western/folk music bands in the country who used the banjo, and about hundreds of local, amateur bands with the banjo. The communication among them was limited due to politics, almost no access to telephones, no possibility to publish and print information without the state consent, poor roads, and so on. It was the life behind the iron curtain.

As a teenager, I myself was a member of a country and western group too, our banjo player had a converted instrument from then East Germany. We joined several regional competitions for amateur folk and country music groups. I had no idea that there was something like the Banjo Jamboree. I first visited the festival in the early 1980s, with a bluegrass band from the city of Brno, Moravia, where I lived at that time. Then I (we) attended regularly. Banjo Jamboree was a feast/festival/ celebration for musicians, the only banjo-focused event in the country. They met once a year, exchanged music and information, played American music in an otherwise isolated country, where few people spoke English. When an official program ended, musicians continued jamming, sometimes the sessions lasted a day or two…I remember the festival when it was held at a football field, people sitting on the ground, even if it rained, in the late ’80s there were about 2,500 people, camping around wildly, because there were no possibilities for accommodation in the town at that time. Nevertheless, people preferred to stay without sleep overnight, so they could join various jam-session groups, and moved from one to another….I believe that people who visited Banjo Jamboreee before 1990, remember more the free atmosphere of jam-sessions than the performances on the stage.”

Tony Furtado, Portland, Oregon-based singer-songwriter, banjo champion (Winfield, 1987) and slide guitar master, participated in 2015 … 

“I played there as a duo with my wife Stephanie Schneiderman. Even though we weren’t straight up bluegrass they were extremely welcoming and I feel like they were open minded to us… very hospitable. I think they do a wonderful job of preserving and promoting bluegrass music. What amazed me the most is listening to some of the traditional bluegrass bands that played, I honestly couldn’t tell they weren’t from East Tennessee or somewhere steeped in the bluegrass tradition until they spoke to the audience between songs in Czech!

We both thought it was a very well-run bluegrass festival and it was inspiring to see so much enthusiasm and commitment to that, and commitment to a style of music I grew up playing here in the US. 

Banjo workshop with Tony Furtado at Banjo Jamboree in 2015

You will find full details about Banjo Jamboree 2022 on their official web site.

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.