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THE BANJO CHINA SYNDROME Intersecting Interests: The Banjo and Things Asian

Posted by Brooklynbanjoboy on Saturday, July 13, 2013

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Intersecting Interests: The Banjo and Things Asian

Lew Stern, Little Bear Banjo Hospital, Staunton, VA


I started fooling around with the banjo in the 1960s, as a junior high school student in Brooklyn, New York.  I was lucky enough to get an old, beat up a long neck banjo -- a Baker Belmont -- as a graduation gift from my parents.  In retrospect, the banjo was not necessarily as wise a choice as trying out for the football team in terms of striking on a formula for becoming popular.


After college, I spent 30 years in working Southeast Asian defense and security issues for the CIA and the Department of Defense.  We lived in Bangkok, Thailand, in the mid-1980s.  During the period from 1988 to 2008, I travelled in and out of Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, 5 or 6 times a year for work. 


My two interests –Asia, and banjo – intersected more than I ever thought they would. 


In my spare time while in the region, I’d hunt down local musicians, players of indigenous instruments as well as those more inclined to Western string instrument influences. 


I amassed a collection of Thai, Vietnamese and Cambodian stringed instruments that were, in their way, banjo-like. 


During my visits to Hanoi, I would spend spare time in various music stores, talking to local builders.  Those were really rudimentary workshops, dirt floors, hand made carving knives, salvaged wood and metal – in the late 1980s I once saw some locally built guitars whose strings, I swear, looked as though they were made from the internal wiring systems salvaged from downed U.S. aircraft.  I once convinced a small musical instrument storeowner to attempt to build banjo necks from specs I offered.  The end product was an intriguing combination of ingenuity and confusion, a work in teak that twisted quickly over time, but that ended up being re-milled by me into some sweet little tailpieces for gut strung banjos. 


I was, for a variety of reasons, immersed in Vietnam wartime documents such as memoirs and policy records, in Vietnamese.  I was equally interested in the wartime records, and post-war English language histories, by both experts and veterans. 


In the course of 30 years of monitoring such publications, I managed to stumble across a bunch of references in post-war publications by U.S. veterans that described personal experiences in southern Vietnam, and occasionally spoke to rear area R and R between operations.  In some cases, I read references to pick-up bands of U.S. service personnel that deployed guitars and banjos and other American instruments hauled across the ocean by GIs sent to the war zone.  In one or two U.S.-published memoirs, I came across some photos of banjo players in rear area gatherings in and around Saigon, and secretly always hoped I’d stumble across a Gibson left behind after 1973 during my visits to southern Vietnam. 


At some point, during the heyday of BANJO-L, I made the acquaintance of Robert Stuart "Stu" Jamieson, who recorded Rufus Crisp and was actively involved in performing old time music until his death in 2006.  Jamieson was born in 1922 in Kansu, in the Tibetan-Chinese border country, to a missionary family.  We exchanged emails in Chinese, talked about my travels in China in the mid-1990s, and mused about the spirits that drove us to Sinic language and culture and, at the same time, to banjo-focused music.


As the Director for Southeast Asia in the Office of the Secretary of Defense during my last seven years in government, I had certain representational responsibilities including hosting “social” events for visiting delegations.  Vietnamese, Thai, Cambodians – and Asians in general – were curious about Americans and their family lives, and intrigued by American “culture.”  The banjo and old time music was a great party trick, a fine way of leveling the playing field, introducing a measure of informality into a “diplomatic” after-hours event, and getting visitors to talk about their own folk cultures.  Southeast Asians sing.  They sing at parties.  They sing to break the ice.  They sing to create camaraderie in all manner of gatherings.  They warmed immediately to chances to trade old time tunes for their own music. 


I recently stumbled across a small group of avid banjo practitioners in Asia, and we’ve tried to sustain connections and be mutually helpful.  I ship my issues of Banjo Newsletter to Guangzhou Province after I’ve read them.  I send used DVDs to these Asian friends, and rely on email and other internet-driven mechanisms to trade tunes and helpful practice hints.  I’ve managed to establish an arrangement whereby I get interesting Chinese-language books in return for banjo-focused media.  My Vietnamese friends know of, and remain curious about, my interest in archaic American tunes, and try to help me grasp some of the rich and historically complex traditions of indigenous music from their country.      


It’s like trading baseball cards with your “pen pals” – anyone remember what those were?


Anyway, southern Chinese refer to clawhammer as

抓奏,  Zhua Zou, meaning to Grab, Seize, Clutch, and to

Play Music.  


Sounds about right.


Play hard,





11 comments on “THE BANJO CHINA SYNDROME Intersecting Interests: The Banjo and Things Asian”

Bill Rogers Says:
Tuesday, July 16, 2013 @2:58:03 AM

Fascinating post, Lew. I hope it gets well-read.

Bill Rogers Says:
Tuesday, July 16, 2013 @3:02:23 AM

Fascinating post, Lew. I hope it gets well-read.

Brooklynbanjoboy Says:
Tuesday, July 16, 2013 @4:46:19 AM

Thanks, Bill, and thanks for your continuing presence and contributions to BHO.
Take care,

Paul R Says:
Tuesday, July 16, 2013 @6:49:29 AM

Great post - thanks for writing this, and thanks to Bill for alerting BHO members about it.

Do you have photos of some of the instruments that you can post, as well?

Brooklynbanjoboy Says:
Tuesday, July 16, 2013 @7:33:52 AM

Kind of you to say, Paul.

I really only have two instruments left in my “collection,” a Đàn Tinh from Vietnam and a simple three string instrument from Thailand. I sold many of my instruments to a gentleman from Holland, Hennie de Bruin, who maintains an incredible website on stringed instruments.



This Chabey, from Cambodia, on the Southeast Asian page, was in my collection:

As were a bunch of the Vietnamese instruments on his website:

During a visit to Phnom Penh in the mid 1990s, I made the mistake, while conducting official meetings with counterparts from the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, of remarking about the slow but sure resurgence of Cambodian music after the long, dark rule of the Khmer Rouge. I mentioned a Chabey player I had heard, and observed that I thought his immense musical instrument, constructed of salvaged wood and odds and ends, showed the irrepressible nature of Cambodian culture.

Some months later, on a reciprocal visit to the U.S., a Cambodian military delegation disembarked at Dulles airport, and offloaded a gigantic wooden box as part of their luggage. We drove in a procession of official vehicles to the hotel they were staying at in northern Virginia. I briefed them on the plans for meetings the following day, and suggested they get a good nights rest. The head of the delegation responded by presenting me with this Chabey that had been packed in a hand-made shipping box.

It was so large that I had to call for a taxi van to transport the instrument from the hotel. Some while later I arranged for the Chabey to go to Mr. de Bruin – he apparently did not recall the circumstances of the transfer since he ascribes the instrument to a Hanoi instrument store that sells classical/traditional Vietnamese musical instruments out of the old 36-block area in the “old city.”

banjoy Says:
Tuesday, July 16, 2013 @8:35:32 AM

Very nice blog thanks for posting this.

mrphysics55 Says:
Tuesday, July 16, 2013 @9:10:33 AM


Brooklynbanjoboy Says:
Tuesday, July 16, 2013 @1:52:17 PM

I took a quick video of the few Southeast Asian things that survived my 30 year career in government. The first is a textile piece from northern Thailand. The second is a textile piece from Laos. The third item is a depiction of the Angkor Wat in Cambodia made out of an artillery shell in the 1980s. The fourth item is an example of northern Vietnamese inlay work. The last two items are instruments -- the first is Thai and the second is Vietnamese. I did this to test my new found capacity to embed videos...

Brooklynbanjoboy Says:
Tuesday, July 16, 2013 @1:52:50 PM

And that new found capacity apparently leaves a lot to be desired...

Brooklynbanjoboy Says:
Tuesday, July 16, 2013 @1:58:18 PM

OK. I managed to get it to work in the thread Bill kindly started that brought this blog to BHO members' attention.

JanetB Says:
Friday, July 19, 2013 @10:07:50 AM

Wow, Lew, you've just given me a day's worth of reading to catch up on. Some of my most enjoyable classes were full of Hmong kids--refugees from Thailand. Reminded myself of Anna and the King of Siam!

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