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Stone and Sissoko explore the banjo's African connection

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

3 of my most unforgettable experiences in life were eating termites in Zaire (now DRC), going on a photo safari in Kenya and listening to a gospel choir in Ghana. 

Below is an Oct 3 article from the Boston Globe and the article with photographs is at:

Stone and Sissoko explore the banjo's African connection

Songs that traveled to America on the slave ships in the 1600s and 1700s, the minstrel music that mixed African tribal origins with European sensibilities, have long been a pursuit of banjo man Jayme Stone.

But after a while, he says, it wasn't satisfying enough to learn just the early New World styles.

"I wondered what the music sounded like before it made it over here," he says.

So last year Stone set out on a seven-week trip to West Africa in search of his modern-day banjo's ancestors. The journey uncovered connections to the Middle Ages and yielded a critically lauded album, "Africa to Appalachia," recorded with Mansa Sissoko, a Malian singer and master of the 21-string kora.

Stone, who splits his time between Boulder, Colo., and Toronto, met Sissoko on the latter's first trip to Canada. "There was an immediate synergy between us," says Stone. "The way the music fell together was so natural that in some ways I [felt like] I was coming home."

"There is never a meeting between two people without some sharing," adds Sissoko, who, like his mother, was a griot in Mali. "And this connection was like a light that starts growing inside."

Noting that in America we tend to see music mostly as entertainment, Stone credits his experiences with storytelling griots for instilling in him a larger, more important context for music: "keeping the culture alive."

"In Africa, griots are like the blood in the human body for the culture," Sissoko explains, emphasizing that music is central to life in his homeland. "They keep everything circulating and alive."

Although Stone's mission was to uncover common musical ground between Africa and Appalachia - like the shared affinity for sustaining culture and the similar open-string styles - he found the differences between two continents just as intriguing.

"All the different musical elements there - the melodies, embellishments, improvisation, and especially the polyrhythms - are used sort of like Lego blocks," he says. "They can be stacked and fitted together in many different ways and intersect at different times. They're not organized around the downbeat like they are here. The musicians can start playing any of the elements at any time."

After several weeks of searching, Stone located a few ancestors of the American banjo, all following a basic blueprint: a resonating chamber (like a gourd), a dried animal skin pulled over it, and strings, often played in a manner similar to the clawhammer style for banjo. The instruments included the lute-like, four- or seven-string ngoni, which traces back to 12th-century court music of Bambougo; a two-string variation, the konou, which he found in the artisan village of Ende; and a rare, ancient predecessor, the one-string juru keleni tracked down at the National Museum in Bamako.

"Sadly, the young musicians there would rather play electric guitars, drums, and synths," says Stone. "So the elders were moved that I was interested in their traditional music. Sometimes it takes someone halfway across the world to appreciate music and culture from another place."

Stone's scope is far-reaching, connecting seemingly disparate cultures with passions for music that run through bluegrass, jazz, and "the grit of roots music" to West Africa, Brazil, Sweden, and a Bach violin sonata he's transcribing for solo banjo. "I try to bring together styles and musicians from different scenes." When he returned from Mali, he had new inspirations - and a stack of research and field recordings - to add to his arsenal.

For "Africa to Appalachia," his latest project of musique recyclée - "the sound of traditional music re-imagined" - Stone teamed with Sissoko, who had relocated to Quebec City. Together they assembled an array of musicians, discussed the record they wanted to make, developed a repertoire, and toured before recording the album's 13 tracks in Toronto.

"Spending the time collaborating is where the real connection is," says Stone, "and this project has been steered by everyone involved. I wanted to hear [Mali's] Bassekou Kouyate, who's a ngoni wunderkind, playing an American fiddle tune. And I wanted to hear how Casey Driessen [also a fiddler with Sparrow Quartet] would sound playing African music. It was really rewarding being able to reach worldwide and bring them together."

Together, they made "magic" music. "I love the textural combinations," Stone says of the contrasts of his banjo's metal strings against the nylon fishing line of Sissoko's kora. "They're very different, but they blend really naturally."

Stone says his West African experiences will forever shape and color his musical explorations.

"With influences, nothing ever goes away," he says. "All the music a musician ever plays stays in your sonic environment and imagination. Blending styles of music is like trying to braid water. You find out that it's all the same thing." 


1 comment

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I am a beginner level banjo player and am from North Carolina originally and now live in Virginia. A little over a year ago, I walked into a music store that had a banjo on sale. I bought the banjo and learning to play the banjo has become a positive obsession since then! I thought I would be good within a year or 2 but I now realize it will take years of practice and discipline to become a top-notch banjoist. For some reason, it seems important that I become the very best banjo player I can be. I served in the Peace Corps in El Salvador and my banjo goal is to become an excellent banjoist and travel throughout Latin America playing the banjo and sharing this important part of American culture.

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