Students and fans of bluegrass and old time music, and a great many people with an interest in American folk music, know of the African roots of our beloved banjo. Academics and ethnomusicologists have written extensively on the topic, but the instrument has had precious few practitioners among black Americans in recent history.
Events like Tony Thomas’ Black Banjo Gathering have worked to reclaim it’s African heritage – and explain it to younger American blacks – while the tremendous popularity of the Carolina Chocolate Drops has presented black banjo music to festival and concert audiences worldwide.
Now, we have the latest release from blues artist Otis Taylor, entitled Recapturing The Banjo, which is a move in just that direction. Due on February 5 from Telarc Records, the CD features not only Taylor, but other black banjoists Guy Davis, Corey Harris, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Keb’ Mo’ and Don Vappie as well.
"The banjo has become so closely associated with folk singers and bluegrass players. Over the years, the instrument just lost touch with its roots, and I’m just trying to re-establish that connection.
I wanted to make an album that was historically significant, 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.”
The music is presented with a variety of banjo styles on both 4 and 5 string instruments, and has won some rave reviews both for the strength of Taylor’s original songs and the overall impact of the many performers’ contributions. We could not find any audio samples online, but they should appear soon on the Telarc web site.
Telarc has put together a YouTube video showcasing the artists whose music is featured on Recapturing The Banjo, which includes both commentary and banjo picking.
To find out more about the African roots of the modern banjo, check these resources: