Marc Nerenberg has made 223 recent additions to Banjo Hangout
Occupation: singer/songwriter/banjo/harmonica player/and OK, I'm also a lawyer
My Instruments: banjos: - a 1961 long neck Pete Seeger model Vega banjo (my main squeeze!), once borrowed by Pete Seeger himself! (steel strings) - an 1880ish fretless Dobson (nylgut strings) - a 1910 Fairbanks "Electric" (nylgut strings) - a 1922 Vega Tubaphone 10" rim with a Dan Knowles 5-string neck (steel strings) - a 1926 six string Vega Tubaphone with a 12" rim (nylgut & nylon strings) - a 1927 Vega White Laydie rim with a Mike Ramsey 5 string neck (steel strings) - a 2012 Jeff Menzies fretted 4 string Gourd banjo, made with the original 1927 neck from the Vega White Laydie mentioned above (nylgut strings) - a 2012 Jeff Menzies fretless Gourd banjo, with Boucher style neck (nylgut strings) - a custom made "Halaam" (that's the name of the guy who made the neck) fretless with a neck fitted to a pre-1918 pot (nylgut strings) - a small nameless 5 string A-scale converted from parts of (at least) 2 different 4 stringed instruments (nylgut strings) - a tiny 5 string that was converted from an old banjo-uke (nylgut strings) - a kona (West African "banjo" from the Dogon people of Mali) (fishing line and postal cord);
also: harmonica, as well as some: piano, guitar, dulcimer, auto-harp, washboard, spoons, kazoo and balaphone.
Favorite Bands/Musicians: Sparrow Quartet (band), Bob Dylan (musician/songwriter) and a zillion more people, especially so many people here on the Hangout - far too many to name.
[NOTE: The photographs below, like this one, are mostly mirror images.]
IT ALL BEGAN WITH A CASUAL REMARK
The genesis of my inquiry began in the 1970s. I had seen a coffeehouse performance by the brilliant Erik Frandsen from New York who, when he got out his banjo to play a few fiddle tunes clawhammer style, called it "the only original American instrument". Afterwards, I went over to him and said, "Come on, Erik, surely you know the banjo comes from Africa." and he (thinking fast on his feet) said, "Well, what I really meant was, that style of playing, clawhammer, was purely an American invention, and is the oldest American banjo style." I accepted that as true, but then wondered, if clawhammer was the oldest American banjo style, then how was it played in Africa before that.
In 1981, I received a few thousand dollars in unexpected retroactive pay from my job as a researcher in current affairs radio when a settlement of a prolonged contract negotiation eliminated my category and bumped me into a higher paid category. I phoned my wife and told her, and one of us - I don't remember which - said "Let's get plane tickets and go to Africa before we just fritter the money away on daily expenses", and so we did. After that we had hardly any money for anything else on the trip, so it was the lowest rent travel you could imagine.
Since I had this idea of trying to find out how the banjo ancestors were played, we planned the trip around countries that seemed to be likely locations - Gambia, Senegal, Mali, Upper Volta (now Burkina-Fasso) and Ivory Coast. We thought Gambia would be the best place to look, but unfortunately a coup/civil war broke out days before we were to go there, so we scrapped that part of the trip.
CULTURE SHOCK IN DAKAR
In August 1981, we arrived in Dakar, Senegal, site of the most westerly large airport in Africa, early in the morning after a midnight flight from New York. The first thing that struck me upon emerging from the plane was that the air seemed thicker than I was used to – it felt heavy on my skin, and there was a faint odour of something burning far away at all times. The next thing that struck me was that the tarmac and the airport seemed to be filled with soldiers in camouflage carrying Kalashnikovs. I don’t know if this was because of the coup in neighbouring Gambia a few days before, or if it was just par for the course. I’ve travelled enough in Africa since then that I don’t pay much attention to the ubiquitous machine gun toting soldiers any more – but I wasn’t expecting it then, so it made me very uneasy.
My memories of our few days in Dakar are somewhat vague - the effects of jet lag and the first of several bouts of dysentery are probably responsible for that. The city was very French - it looked like a transplanted piece of Paris – except populated by French speaking Africans. Being from Montreal, and speaking reasonably good French, put me at somewhat of an advantage over the plane load of mostly African-Americans who had intended to follow the Alex Hailey Roots route into the Gambia – a tiny English speaking enclave surrounded on three sides by Senegal. But the recent coup had prevented them, and us, from pursuing that chosen route. So they wandered about Dakar a bit at loose ends, unable to communicate very effectively with the local population. We wandered around Dakar too, but quickly struck up conversations, largely due to the little fretless banjo slung over my back that people kept asking me to play. And whenever I played, people gathered around to listen, clap rhythms and sometimes dance.
Much to my surprise, carrying a banjo slung across my back with no case, upon which I was very happy to oblige any request for playing anywhere at any time, rapidly made me a sort of celebrity. Crowds would literally gather around me on the street and get me to play - often the children would dance. This gave me lots of opportunities to ask people if they knew anyone who played similar instruments. The answer always was the same - you have to go way off into the countryside to find that. (The people in the cities were far more likely to play electric guitar!) Though I asked far and wide, no one seemed able to direct me to anyone who played any similar instruments.
At one point I was playing in an empty lot and a fairly large crowd gathered in a circle, while people took turns going into the middle of the circle and dancing. It seemed to be a ‘showing off your hot footwork’ kind of a thing. While I was playing, I could feel someone come up behind me and try to reach into my pocket and extract my wallet. I kept on playing, but turned around and glared at him. He backed off, and slunk away. When it was over, and I mentioned what had happened to the fellow standing next to me, he remarked that the pickpocket was very lucky I had done that. Had I instead denounced him to the crowd, they would have cut his hand off: my first taste of the harshness that life sometimes assumes in Africa.
That evening we discovered just how dark a city can be with no street-lights. We had gone out to eat at a restaurant, which was hard enough to find with no street signs, but getting back to our hotel with no overhead lights was an even greater challenge. The stars in the sky were clear and brightly visible, but the street in front of us seemed to disappear into profound darkness. Eventually we became used to navigating by moonlight and the occasional glow coming from a window.
THE TRAIN TO BAMAKO, A DAY AND NIGHT TO REMEMBER
We stayed in Dakar a few days and then headed by train to Bamako, the capital of Mali. The train was old and rickety, with a black steam locomotive that looked like it could have been made in the nineteenth century. It was a classic design that conjured up the toy trains of my childhood. The price of first class tickets was only marginally more than second class, so we sprang for them, on the understanding that we would be guaranteed a seat that way, and not risk having to stand.
Sure enough, the first class car was pretty empty when the train pulled out, and we sat in comfort. But the train made many stops along the way, to pick up and discharge passengers and freight. At each stop, aside from buying food through the window from the many women and children who lined the side of the train with stuff to sell at every stop, we noted that more and more people got on in the second class cars – and then made their way through the train to the first class car to deposit their luggage there, filling the empty seats. And the luggage they deposited in the first class car was not just suitcases. There were boxes and boxes of eggs, as well as crate after crate of live chickens, along with a couple of goats tied up in the aisles. The passengers went back to ride in the second class cars, while we were left in the first class car along with the livestock.
To pass the time, I periodically played my banjo on the train, and people would come and stand near my seat and listen. More than one pointed at me and said, “Bob Marley!” and then chuckled. When I put on my harmonica rack, they decided that I was “Bob Dylan” instead. The Bobs, Marley and Dylan, were the only non-African musicians I ever heard referred to on that trip.
At one point when I was playing, a tiny man came dancing down the aisle, and danced beside me for a very considerable amount of time – until he got off the train, in fact. By tiny, I mean that the top of his head came up to around my waist. But his shortness was not because he was a midget or dwarf or pygmy. It was because he had no legs at all – just the upper part of his body. His incredible dancing – and it really was good – was done entirely on his hands, upon which he wore a thick pair of gloves – kind of like sneakers for his hands. He was truly a sight to behold – a wonder at dancing on his hands!
In the middle of that night, the train came to a complete stop in the middle of nowhere, out in the countryside, in total darkness. And there we sat for hours, with no indication as to why we had stopped or when we would be under way again. But way off in the distance, we could see a flickering glowing light from which point we could hear music. Rumour on the train had it that the crew had all left to attend some sort of festivity going on there. As curious as we were to see it for ourselves, we were afraid to get off the train and go look, lest the train should take off with no warning just as it had stopped, leaving us behind. In the morning, another old steam locomotive arrived, and was attached in front of the original locomotive, and we were on our way to Bamako again. We never did find out whether the purpose of the stop was to let the crew go to the festivities, or whether the festivities just happened to be conveniently near where some mechanical failure had forced a stop.
Because of the unscheduled long stop, instead of arriving in Bamako in the daytime, we arrived around midnight, and the city was all shut down and dark. We had no place to stay, but a taxi driver at the train station said he knew a place for us. He dropped us off at a bordello, where we were permitted to spend the night in the courtyard. The next day, we moved to the ‘two dollar a night sleep in your sleeping bag on the floor’ dormitory at the Catholic Mission – quite a contrast!
FROM BAMAKO TO BANDIAGARA
Wandering the streets of Bamako with my fretless banjo, I again found myself to be an object of curiosity, and I was frequently asked to play, whereupon crowds would gather around, and children would dance. After four days in Bamako (the limit one was allowed to stay at the Catholic Mission) we continued on our way, heading to Dogon country on the remote Falaise of Bandiagara. We took a bus, packed like a sardine can, out of Bamako, that left from the modern 4 block downtown district, across a brand new modern six lane bridge, that seemed to be the beginning of a wide modern highway, only to find that there was a two lane (in places, only one lane) dirt road on the other side of the river.
It was a long and uncomfortable ride to the unpleasantly insect infested smelly and dirty town of Mopti. While we were happy to get off the bus, we were just as happy to leave Mopti the next day, this time by Bashé – an open pickup truck, the back of which was crammed with standing passengers. The driver, a huge and imposing man, kept laughing at me and insisting I keep playing music while we waited for the truck to be full. He wasn’t willing to leave until then. On the road, he amused himself by chasing dogs with his truck, very clearly and deliberately running one over when he caught up with it. Then he burst into laughing again. That was our second taste of the harshness of African life.
Ultimately, we arrived at the tiny town of Bandiagara - a small walled village of mostly stone buildings that looked to be centuries old – quite literally at the end of the road. We stayed at a hotel called the Bar Kansaye, run by old man Mamadou Kansaye. It was an old stone house, with beds made from bundles of twigs tied together to form a sort of mattress. They were surprisingly comfortable and springy, especially given that they looked like they would be excruciatingly uncomfortable, which they were not. The bar itself, was just a stone counter in a dirt floored courtyard, with a few warm bottles of wine, and goats and chickens wandering around. We stayed there a few days, arranging for our actual visit to Dogon country, an enormous cliffside a day’s walk away, and once again I was called upon to play my banjo, garnering all the free drinks I could consume by playing at Mamadou’s request in the bar.
One night in the bar I was asked to play by a soldier in uniform, who had been talking about some problem he was having to old man Kansaye, and was obviously agitated and upset over something, though I didn’t understand the language they were speaking. In truth, I wasn’t so much asked to play as I was more or less ordered to do so by the agitated soldier. I played the song ‘Needed Time’, and sang it in English, a language he didn’t understand. I was shocked to find that I brought him to tears: a real testament to the universal expressiveness of music. Our cultures and backgrounds couldn’t have been more different, but the power of music seamlessly bridged the gap.
TO DOGON COUNTRY
We were actually a group of six white people traveling together into and out of Dogon country - travellers who had come together out of convenience, three Canadians and three Americans. Other than my wife and I, the other 4 were in Africa on missions with the Peace Corps or CUSO (a sort Canadian equivalent). At this point in time they were on vacation from their jobs and were going to visit the Dogon people because the Dogon are quite famous - a visit to the great Falaise of Bandiagara, that enormous cliff where the Dogon live, is routinely on those lists of "100 top places you should see before you die". The Dogon are a protected people, however. You need a permit to travel there (or at least you did then).
When we went to get our permits at the government office in the town of Bandiagara - which is quite far from the cliff with the same name - the office was filled with people who wanted to get permits to go somewhere. Most were locals who had business here or there. I got the form and wrote down my occupation as "musician-researcher". After a little while of standing at the end of a very long line in the crowded room, the man behind the counter loudly asked who the musician-researcher was. I identified myself, and they had me jump the line and come right up to get my travel permit. (I still have it somewhere.) So being a musician- researcher gave me a status that I hadn't anticipated, and I was treated with considerably more respect all of a sudden.
The Dogon people are not entirely unfamiliar with tourists - though the usual way (and the only legal way) to visit them was on a government guided tour, where you are taken past the villages, get to take pictures, and move on. This was not our idea of actually visiting the Dogon people. We had been advised by some German travelers we had met at the Catholic Mission in Bamako, and they had clued us in on what to do. They suggested that we try to find a Dogon child guide in Bandiagara village who would guide us to his own home village, where we could stay the night. I drew a map under their guidance of villages that did not appear on the printed maps that were possible to visit (even though they were not on the government tour - which was at the opposite end of the cliff) and how to get to them.
When we first got to Bandiagara, we had asked around if anyone knew any Dogon children who could act as guides, and everyone told us that there were no Dogon in Bandiagara, and that the Dogon never came there. We were beginning to despair, when we were approached on the street by a skinny little kid in T-shirt and shorts, who said (in the only English that he knew) "Hey meester - what ees your beezness? My beezness eez guide!" And so we had found our guide - Ibrahim - who got us to hire his friend, Omar, as well, because Omar was the son of a village chief and would be able to get us into places that we would otherwise be forbidden to enter. I wondered about the veracity of this claim, but it did later indeed turn out to be true.
Since our guides spoke no English, but they and I had a common language of French, which no one else in our group spoke, I became the unofficial, but very necessary translation link between first, the guides, and then, the other Dogon that we met - and the rest of our little tribe of Toubabous (white people). Since I had a common language with many people in this former French colony, and because I played music everywhere we went, I was treated, undeservedly, with a greater degree of respect and interest than the rest of the people in our group. I was even named the 'chief' of the group of white people by the guides for the purposes of greeting village chiefs wherever we went, and I admit, I rather enjoyed this degree of respect that was rather more than anything I have ever experienced at home. The other people in our group were not so enamoured with the special treatment I got wherever we went - but they needed me as a translator so they put up with it.
Just getting to Dogon country was quite a trek - and involved a full day's walk from the town of Bandiagara to the cliff, starting at 5 am, over the southern tip of the Sahara Desert. It was literally desert on one side of the trail, and scrubby vegetation on the other side. The Sahara was expanding southward at the time, and its southern edge has likely moved somewhat further south by now.
THE CLIFF DWELLING DOGON PEOPLE
We eventually made our way to the territory of the Dogon people on the extremely remote Falaise of Bandiagara in Eastern Mali. The Dogon lived a remote and isolated life by choice - they moved to this remote cliff side centuries ago to avoid slave traders. Their houses are built right into the side of the cliff. The cliff has a huge overhang, so anyone approaching from above would look down and see nothing. The houses are so high up on the cliff that anyone approaching from below would be seen by the Dogon long before they could climb the cliff, and the Dogon could disappear into the many caves that dot the cliff side. The Dogon are the only people in that region who were never conquered by any of the many empires that have held that area. Adding to their security was their (untrue) reputation as cannibals, and the fact that they file their teeth into points, giving them a rather fearsome appearance, which kept their neighbours rather intimidated by them.
THE DISCOVERY OF A LIFETIME
Inasmuch as the Dogon would have been unlikely to have been slaves in America in any great numbers, if at all, it was the last place I expected to find what I was looking for – a clue as to how the African banjo ancestor instruments were played. When we arrived at the village of Kane-Kombole, where our 12 year old guide lived, I was asked to play banjo for the village chief, who seemed singularly unimpressed, and then for the village children, who gathered around me and danced, each one doing a solo in turn. It was a remarkable moment for me, playing for these children, who stood facing me in a line, holding their bodies completely erect, and dancing in perfect unison, seemingly moving only their feet and legs - it was as though their bodies just floated stationary above their legs. One after another, they advanced one step, danced a more complicated solo, and then stepped back into line. The sound of the bare feet in the sand was the most beautiful and subtle percussion one could wish for.
Then, after dark, while I was still playing for the children, from between two huts, emerged a fellow carrying a skin-covered gourd with an impaled round neck strung with two strings knotted on to the neck. He wiggled the knots on the string to get in tune with me, and began to play along. I was floored. He was using the same hand movements as I was - clawhammer. I was playing "Reuben" which I had read was originally a West African tune that was still current in the region. He had no trouble at all playing it with me.
After the children finished dancing, we played together for several hours, sometimes him following me, sometimes me following him. He was interested in examining my instrument and trying it out. He was most intrigued by the geared tuning pegs, that he examined at some length. Our guide had long since disappeared to hang out with his friends, and we had no common language. The entire conversation was conducted in music.
It was an experience that has profoundly affected my life, my worldview, and my relationship with the banjo.
The next morning, with our young guide, I sought him out, hoping to buy his instrument from him, but alas, he had left the village to go to some distant market. I never saw him again. The instrument that I was able to obtain was actually that of a young friend of our guide, and is a child-sized instrument - about half size. It only had one string, and when I asked why, it was explained to me that that was all he had, if he had had more string, he would have put one or two more strings on it. The string was fishing line. When I got home I added two more strings from string that was as close to the original as I could find - postal chord.
One of the things that the Dogon are famous for is their knowledge of cosmology - their mythology includes stars that are not visible from Earth without a telescope but are indeed there. In fact, their 'creation story" has them as descendants of 8 ancestors who came to earth from the invisible star that is a twin companion star to Sirius - the "Dog Star" - the brightest star in the Southern Hemisphere night sky.
I was introduced to the details of Dogon mythology in an interesting and unique way. When we went to Omar's village (where his father was chief) the guides became quite excited over the fact that I spoke both French and English. Why? Because a few years earlier a white woman had arrived in a helicopter and left them a big book that, as they put it, told the whole story of the Dogon people. The only problem was that the book was in English, and nobody there was able to read it. They wanted me to translate it for them.
I was somewhat intimidated at the prospect, until they brought out the book. It was indeed big - in the sense that it was quite tall - but it was quite narrow, in the sense that it had very few pages. In fact, it was a catalogue from an art exhibition of Dogon art at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, that indeed had a 4-page summary of the Dogon mythology of their own beginnings as a people.
So, as before, they brought all the children of the village around, this time, not to dance (although they did that too) but to hear the white man tell them the story of their people. I read and translated for them the story of their 8 ancestors who came to Earth from a distant star, and arrived at this remote cliff and chased away the tiny people that lived in the caves there (the Tellem) and founded a people that were now 100,000 strong living on that vast cliff-side (and in recent years had expanded onto the valley floor at the foot of the cliff).
The children listened in rapt attention. And several adults too, who seemed amused and entertained by a story that they knew well. The children though seemed to be hearing this for the first time. So I asked one of the adults why this was so. He said "Oh, we don't usually learn these stories until we are much older." Thankfully, no one seemed to think I was breaking any taboo by telling the adult initiation stories to the young children.
I recently went to another stunning exhibition of Dogon art in Paris, where I learned that the Dogon were indeed founded by 8 original leaders (4 couples), who had come from another part of West Africa - not nearly as far away as another star - who had led their people to that cliffside and chased the original inhabitants, the Tellem Pygmys, away. Tellem artwork is still to be found in the caves. It's amazing what you can learn at art exhibitions.
It was from one of the children that came to listen to the stories that I bought the instrument that I brought back. I paid him what he asked for it - the equivalent of about a dollar. Ibrahim chastised me for not bargaining, telling me I could have had it for much less money than that. I told him that to me it was worth far more than that.
CONVERSATIONS WITH THE DOGON
Because of the Dogon arcane knowledge of cosmology, one of the Peace Corps guys kept wanting to ask people about their knowledge of the stars. I, of course, had to act as translator. But these conversations were not easy, because the question would come in English which I had to translate into French, and Ibrahim would translate into Dogon. And then the answer would come back through the same steps. I noticed right away that a lot was lost in translation when people spoke in paragraphs, so we had our conversations one sentence at a time.
We would ask, "Can you tell me what the moon is made of?" "Can you tell me what the stars are made of?"- questions like that. And the answers that came back were always the same - "Well I don't know, you have to ask somebody older” (or somebody with more specialized knowledge for one reason or another) ... and then we would ask where we might find such a person, and we would be led to somebody older or more specialized. When we got to people of a certain age, we needed to add yet another layer of translation, because these people spoke "Old Dogon" which Ibrahim did not speak. Eventually they told us we had to ask the griot (the resident carrier of the local oral history) - but he was not there. So it seemed that we would never get the answers to our questions. Until, that is, we were leaving Dogon country and were climbing up the cliff - which is much harder than climbing down!
As we were nearing a very isolated village high on the cliff - a village that no tourists were allowed to enter - my wife, Rosemary, became violently ill with very serious nausea. Here's where Omar showed his special value. This was his grandfather's village - he was chief - and Omar could get us in.
That this was a village that did not see tourists became immediately apparent. Whereas in the other villages the children had quickly gravitated to us, with a kind of easy going friendly curiosity, here the children looked at us as though we were from Mars. Perhaps they had seen white people before, but clearly not very often, and not necessarily under such friendly circumstances. Well, here we were, and Rosemary began to throw up. Then it seemed like the whole village wanted to gather around and watch the white lady being sick. Ibrahim had the presence of mind to suggest that I play music, which I did. “Just walk” he said, “and they’ll follow you”. He was right, and as I walked away playing the banjo, like the Pied Piper of Hamlin, I led the whole village away from my suffering wife.
Later, after much music and singing, the children did warm up to me and dropped those suspicious looks. And once Rosemary felt better we were brought to meet the village chief, Omar's grandfather. Now here was really the oldest looking man we had yet met in Dogon country - thin, tough and wizened. He sat and held court and we talked - with myself and Ibrahim as intermediaries. Well, naturally, with such an old man before us, out came the cosmology questions.
"Can you tell us what the stars are made of?" "Well, I don't know what the stars are made of, but I can tell you this: They're not really small - they only look small because they're so far away."
"Can you tell us what the moon is made of?" "Well I don't know what the moon is made of, you'll have to ask those who've been there."
And at this point we think we're really getting to the heart of arcane Dogon mythology, and ask "Where can we find those who've been there?"
He looked at us, incredulously: "Why, in America, of course!"
Then we asked if he thought it was going to rain tomorrow. By now, he clearly thought we were idiots of the first order. He said, “How would you find out if it’s going to rain tomorrow? You would listen to the radio! We don’t have radios here, so I don’t know if it’s going to rain tomorrow!”
And thus ended our last audience with a Dogon elder.
THE STORY COMES FULL CIRCLE
Though ever present on my mind, I never encountered another banjo-like instrument on the rest of our travels, despite asking everywhere we went. I did, though, have an opportunity to show the instrument I brought back to Erik Frandsen a few years later, at Montreal's Yellow Door Coffeehouse, and demonstrate how it was played clawhammer style. I don't know whether or not he actually remembered our earlier conversation that had sent me off on this quest, but it was still cool to be able to bring the conversation full circle.
As far as I can tell, I was the first person to stumble upon clawhammer playing in Africa and recognize it as such. There may have been others before me, but I haven't heard about them yet. But let me note, as well, that I’m not suggesting that clawhammer actually made its way to America via the Dogon – it’s far more likely to have come from the Senegal/Gambia region on the Akonting or other such instrument. My discovery shows how widespread African clawhammer playing actually is, and likely has been for many centuries.