From celebrating of the paranormal and the celestial these past couple of days, we’re getting back to more a tangible topic today – 5 May is International Banjo Appreciation Day. And while I may lean towards the sceptic side when it comes to the paranormal, and I’m definitely a believer when it comes to the banjo.
Despite being a string instrument, the banjo is often used in a percussive, rhythmic capacity. With the body consisting of a thin membrane stretched over a circular frame as a resonator, the sound of the banjo is typically quite loud, strong and vibrant. It started off as a part of African-American traditional music, but was soon adopted into traditional western music, particularly American old-time music, including country and bluegrass.
Someone once said it’s impossible to be depressed when a banjo is playing. Inherently bouncy and upbeat, it is often used to provide a driving, energetic accompaniment to songs. It is, however, more versatile than that – using different playing styles, the banjo has proved a valid instrument for a wide range of musical genres, from blistering bluegrass to sad country ballads to dixieland jazz to serious classical works.
Despite being such a multifunctional and widely used instrument, the word ‘banjo’ still makes many people think only of the duelling banjos scene in the movie Deliverance, and end up associating the instrument with a somewhat backward mentality.
Luckily the banjo is gaining ground, even in popular music, with bands like the Dixie Chicks a decade or so ago, and Mumford and Sons these days, introducing a younger pop-oriented audience to the driving banjo sound. And for those looking to explore further, the options are endless – from the neo-traditional brilliance of the Punch Brothers (who’s music have been quite succinctly described as ‘the sound of synapses firing’) to the prog-jazz stylings of the amazing Bela Fleck.
Go on, seek out some banjo music – and join me in celebrating this wonderful instrument.