Words by Hannah Mayree
Here in the Rogue Valley, so many artists travel through, many get lost in the sheer number. Mayree is so memorable, that she stands out. The 29 year old musician sat down with us for a discussion about her obsession: the banjo. She has a lot to say.
What is your musical relationship to the banjo and how did it develop?
My relationship to the banjo has been a magnetic one. I am similar to many folks who come from the African Diaspora: I did not grow up knowing or thinking that the banjo had anything to do with Black People or Africa. Interestingly enough, as I would surely find, this is the systemic result of racist power structures.
I was drawn to the banjo without having any real knowledge of it.
Growing up out West, it was not an instrument I found to be accessible, even though I am blessed to have been raised with music. When I was 20 I set out on a diasporic adventure of my own. I traveled to Florida, the shores of which my ancestors were enslaved, and spent much time in the South and the Eastern United States. There, banjo music is a lot more prevalent and this was the first time in my life I was able to get my hands on one.
It was at this time of my life that music became integrated into me in a new way. I was traveling out of a backpack and playing endless nights worth of music around campfires. This was the first time in my life that music became a way of life for me rather than brought to me in a structured form. It would be another few years before I got my own banjo, but my relationship is one I see as being tied in with the folk tradition. In my case, I let the banjo itself teach me it’s ways.
I use my senses to explore by listening and watching folks play the banjo, having spent many nights falling asleep to the sounds as the fire groans behind melodious strumming. I talk and ask questions about the banjo to people who have their own relationship with the instrument. I sit with my banjo and hold the banjo, letting it narrate the story of my own existence. It has been a spiritual journey and one that never gets old. Whether I’m playing along with a fiddle tune that has been passed down for generations or creating original music, I’m blessed to be a vessel for the banjo to speak and tell more stories and truth to the world.
How did you learn the history of the instrument?
The history of the banjo is still revealing itself to me to this day. It has definitely been a process and it will continue to be. I think it was a combination of pathways: spending time in the South, learning the racist history that is present every day here in Amerikkka, and educating myself through research and by talking with seasoned banjo players.
All of the information is available to us yet why is the truth obscured?
Many people when they are asked about the banjo think of bluegrass music, which is a popular white style of playing the banjo that came into prominence in the 20th century. It is a modern take on folk music played by enslaved African Diasporic peoples. The re-branding of the cultural identity of the banjo is what something I refer to as cultural theft even though it opened up many doors for the white community to explore and become part of banjo tradition.
This may sound shocking or alarming to some white audience members and I want to assure you that no matter what you feel, it doesn’t compare to the felt reality of actual oppression that has been imposed on Black and Brown people for generations, including daily fear and pain from police violence which relates to political violence; disparities in every human resource sector, as well as aggressive behaviors to us: even in the professional, and personal, realms of our lives. If you wish to combat oppression through addressing privilege and cultural violence, as well as solutions and ways to contribute in allyship, read on.
The banjo brings up many cultural pains and it is my wish to address the pain and trauma that stems from the initial separation of people from land and secondarily; people from culture. Most of the people on the planet experience separation, displacement, immigration, or gentrification in one way or another. Our stories are tied together, and as I tell it as I know it, the Black Banjo Reclamation Project was started through Black pain and resilience to imagine a world of healing for ourselves starting with being reconnected to culture that we have yet to fully access ourselves. I say this because I want to acknowledge the pain and healing of all communities, while centering the experiences of some of the most marginalized and oppressed people in this country. This project also recognizes the complexities and struggles of racism and colorism across the globe and expands to encompass Black and African empowerment world wide.
It started with the minstrel genre – which is literally blackface; the basis for vaudeville and other performance and this continued into the folk revival of the 60’s and exists today in our world in various ways.
These are the more modern commodified versions of banjo that dominate the narrative. It is always the oppressors who write history. If you go back in history, it is possible to see how the crossover happened and the ways in which this history shows up today.
Gourd instruments were present in West Africa for thousands of years when colonization hit the shores and capitalized on precious Black bodies who were brought to distant lands. You can rip Black people from their land and culture, but even in the midst of this great oppression, Black people still carried with them the songs and musical traditions from their homelands. These instruments were present here for centuries before whites decided to co-op, claim they invented the banjo, and started marketing it to the masses.
Anyone know the origins of Vaudeville? Blackface started in the 1830s and 1840s. Anyone know what was the most popular form of entertainment in the first part of the 20th century? BLACKFACE. Yes folks, there you have it. History tells its own story. It’s just our job to connect the pieces.
Racism has taken on many forms and we understand the structural integrity holding it in place when we see that Africans were enslaved then made to build the infrastructure of this country. Then, even after the abolishment of slavery, minstrel shows were used as psychological warfare to further dis-empower African Diasporic people from recognizing their own cultural contributions and music genius.
I learned this from many sources, many of which are available through basic media. The Carolina Chocolate Drops are a band that came together through the Black Banjo Gathering that happened in Boone, North Carolina in the mid 2000’s. Through the connection of these young people, they created inter-generational bonds under the guidance and mentorship of Joe Thompson; one of the carriers of African-Diasporic folk music traditions that pre-date the civil war.
Mr. Thompson has since passed, but we honor the lineages that brought forth retrieval of this important and often untold piece of musical and social history. The Carolina Chocolate Drops were able to document and learn folk music from the pre-civil war era and have brought much awareness of old time roots music to generations of folks young and old of many backgrounds. My intention is to help facilitate cultural re-connection through music as well as historical and spiritual learning to individuals and communities.
There is so much historical and generational trauma for Black folks in America related to the banjo that it is no wonder that it has fallen out of popularity in many communities. The intention and goal of this project is to promote access to cultural awareness, community and empowerment through reconnecting African-American individuals and communities to the Banjo and other African-Diasporic instruments.
Are there any recordings of enslaved persons playing the banjo?
I by no means am an expert on the matter. What I have been able to find is this: the modern banjo that we see is predated by a model that is called the minstrel banjo. Minstrel banjo is considered to be Black Banjo and it is what was taken and co-opted into blackface performance. These earlier prototype banjos have different features such as a fretless neck and nylon strings to better tap into the earlier sounds that have come from the predecessors of the banjo: the Jola ek anting and the Manyango buchundo. The style of banjo I play and create with is called frailing, or clawhammer, and it resembles what some would consider traditional Southern Appalachian sounds, that are attributed to the direct African lineages that all other styles of banjo stem from.
The Minstrel music speaks to the Black Banjo Reclamation Project as do the many varying styles, such as jug band music and ragtime, early blues and jazz are all common and popular styles of the 20th century among Black players. Now that we are in the year 2019 and moving forward, we have all the creative and social agency to move forward with our own styles and contributions to banjo music, as well as honoring banjo players of the New World, ancestral links to Africa, and the healing journey of change we co-conspire to bring forth.
Is patting Juba a part of the banjo magic?
I do not know that there are specific ties to Juba but dance originating in Africa yes. Banjo music traditionally is dance music. Square dances and contra dances are some dances that would have commonly gone hand in hand with the banjo and the fiddle music of the time. This music is a lot of what folks are learning, preserving and bringing back into their lives because it’s so fun to be able to commune in cultural ways such as dance and music. These were social events that helped hold communities together.
So many pieces of African culture were colonized and we see that in the difference between African cultures and what we see in African American culture. As a person who lives on and is a guest on Turtle Island, I acknowledge the Indigenous peoples to this land and the African continent and honor them while knowing that the culture I am part of is a colonized combination of many cultures from around the world. It’s not something I am proud of, but it is something I accept and recognize much healing must be done to design better systems to take the place of the globalization, colonization and racism that exists.
This is a solutionary project, one that empowers members of Black and African Diasporic communities to lead through togetherness, self-determination, and by reappropriating wealth, resources and land to the people from which these necessities have been systematically denied.
How would like the world to honor the banjo?
I feel that I am doing my best to honor the banjo by creating this project which is really about bringing Black community together in new and old ways. I want to honor the white community by letting everyone know that this is a multicultural collaboration that centers the Black experience, which is essential to do in a country consistently marginalizing and denying Blacks in American the right to exist freely.
This project promotes ancestral healing in all peoples. This is one opportunity for folks with resources to re-appropriate wealth and resources in the form of banjos – in kind donations and other resources – to support music for, and by, Black people.
Reparations are payments and contributions to communities who have been historically and generationally oppressed at the hands of groups of people who receive privileges in the society today. When we give reparations we recognize the injustices that we have actively or passively taken part in and attempt to tangibly create more equity. Honoring the youth and the elders and bridging inter-generational gaps is one way to build more resilient communities and promote the sharing of culture through our relationships to one another. Honoring the banjo means looking at the story of how we all got here, with our many backgrounds and the slew of problems that have stood in the way of liberation. We as people, have no liberation without Black Liberation. This is what the Black Banjo Reclamation Project is here for; to support human invention and creativity in facing our reality with integrity to advocate for a more just world. Ase.
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