Pluck & circumstance Banjo masters pick their way with abundance of fine styles

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If there is a Rodney Dangerfield of musical instruments, surely it is the humble banjo, that plunky, down-home melding of drum head and plectrum neck that gets about as much respect in the serious music world as a whoopee cushion.

Exhibit A: the latest batch of jokes from the banjo-bashing underground:

Q: What's the difference between a banjo and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle?

A: You can tune a Harley.

Q: Why do some people have an instant aversion to banjo players?

A: It saves time in the long run.

Q: What will you never say about a banjo player?

A: That's the banjo player's Porsche.

Q: What did the banjo player get on his IQ test?

A: Drool.

Those jokes -- and 95 others -- were faxed recently by an anti-banjoist to Joe Wilson, executive director of the nonprofit National Council for the Traditional Arts, based in Silver Spring. Mr. Wilson had just assembled seven of the country's finest traditional banjo players into a show called "Masters of the Banjo." Undaunted, he quickly bound the jokes into a booklet that he now sells for $1 at every stop along the "Masters of the Banjo" tour -- which will be in Annapolis tomorrow for an 8 p.m. show at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts.

If nothing else, the booklet shows that banjo players know a thing or two about getting the last laugh. And in spite of the jokes, the show should also prove, even to hard-core banjophobes, that there are people out there who really do know how to pick that thing.

"I just think the banjo is a wonderfully expressive instrument," says Mr. Wilson, backstage before a recent "Masters" show at the Alden Theater in McLean, Va. "The banjo is an instrument in which everything it has been, it still is. If you look around you can still see people playing in those old styles. It's just marvelous history."

Master of the krar

Proof of that came walking down the hallway toward him in the figure of Seleshe Damessae, an Ethiopian master of the krar, a twin-necked instrument with the rounded shape of a banjo and a tone surprisingly reminiscent of an open-back, clawhammer-style mountain banjo.

"Forget the neck," says Mr. Damessae. "If you see the body of the banjo, it's the same as the krar." Mr. Damessae, who now lives in Vermont, was taught the krar by his father and traveled extensively in the Nile valley where krar players go from village to village singing folk tales accompanied by their instrument.

It's an often overlooked fact that the banjo -- thought by many a purely American invention -- came to this country early in the 17th century with slaves from West Africa. But those West Africans got it from East Africans in the Nile valley -- Mr. Damessae's forebears.

"From one country to another, from one continent to another, styles change," he says. "But the music is very universal. I see the similarity, the differences, but always the universality. It's the same instrument."

True to his word, Mr. Damessae was on stage a few moments later playing his krar alongside Will Keys of Gray, Tenn., a master of the two-finger, up-picking style made popular in mountain areas of the Appalachians during the 1930s. In a delightful harmony, unique for its transcultural charm as much as its sprightly tempo, the two picked and sang something called "Going Down to Lynchburg." The audience of about 400 loved it.

"Traditional arts should be valued on the same level as any other artistic genre," observes Julia Olin, the associate director of the council that has previously sponsored "Masters of the Fiddle" and "Masters of the Steel Guitar" shows. "A fine artist is a fine artist, and among the arts of these people there are great virtuosos. Their art is as fine as in any other genre."

At any rate, the crisp tone of so many different banjos tuning up together backstage in McLean -- from Mr. Damessae's krar to the four-string Irish banjo of Seamus Egan -- sounded fine indeed. "Oh, we're enjoying each other's styles and approaches, very much," says one of the banjo pickers, Tony Ellis.

Mr. Ellis was inspired in his teens to emulate the revolutionary three-finger banjo picking style of Earl Scruggs, becoming so proficient that Bill Monroe hired him to play in his famous "Bluegrass Boys" band. Eventually, though, Mr. Ellis found himself mixing in the old-timey rhythms of the banjo, and his style has evolved into an eclectic mixture of the old and the new, marked by a slow, deliberate emphasis on melody.

"In recent times the banjo has been more of a stereotype or a caricature rather than being considered a serious musical instrument," he says. "When people think of the banjo, they think of toe-tapping, fast, exciting music. They don't always think of a banjo as having the ability to play things that are more touching.

"But you can play things on the banjo that are achingly beautiful and very romantic, and also things that are very sad and plaintive. A banjo will do whatever you want it to do."

Motherly pluck

Though none of the seven masters on this tour is female, a surprising number of them said they had learned the instrument from a grandmother, a mother or a great-aunt -- including the legendary Ralph Stanley, easily the best-known picker in the group.

"My mother played the old-time banjo a little bit and I liked the sound of it," he explains. "I like what you get from a banjo. It's a good, clear lonesome note if you know how to put it up there."

Mr. Stanley teamed for years with his brother Carter, and after Carter's death he went on to perfect a clean, unadorned form of bluegrass banjo instantly recognizable to the initiated as the Ralph Stanley style. "I just play it like my fingers led me to it," he says quietly. "I don't put any hot runs or anything like that in it. I play it where people can understand it."

His modesty seems the norm for the group. In fact, several of the seven players seem shy and uncomfortable on stage between their pieces -- only when they begin to play does their magic become evident.

Artists but amateurs

That's because few of them are professional musicians. Kirk Sutphin, for example, a maestro of the clawhammer style, is a full-time house painter in southwestern Virginia. And Carroll Best is a retired industrial worker who now farms by day and picks a melodic-style banjo at night. His intricate style incorporates the fifth string into the melody and usually follows an accompanying fiddle note for note. Many credit him with practically inventing the form, but he is quick to give credit to his father's teaching and to downplay his own ability.

"The banjo is an amazing instrument," he says in a barely audible voice. "There's just so many things on there, I don't believe you can learn them all. I can't. I told these boys I feel like I'm in the third grade on the thing. That's about how advanced I am."

But don't let the humility completely fool you, warns Mr. Wilson.

"Banjo players tend to be quiet people and gentle people," he says, "who harbor a secret desire to make a big noise. A very nice noise."

BANJO CONCERT

What: "Masters of the Banjo," a national touring concert of traditional banjo styles

When: 8 p.m. tomorrow

Where: Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, 801 Chase St., Annapolis

Tickets: $15 at door

Call: National Council for the Traditional Arts, (301) 565-0654, for ticket outlet information; or Maryland Hall for Creative Arts, (410) 236-5019

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