It took a decade for the banjo to really resonate with Leonard Podolak.Despite his folk roots – his father is a banjo player and prolific folk festival organizer – it wasn’t until
Podolak was 16 years old that his dad finally managed to pass on the tradition.
“He started trying when I was 6,” Podolak said, “but I thought his hand looked funny when he played the banjo clawhammer style.”
The traditional picking style for a banjo consists of an up-picking motion by the fingers and down-picking motion by the thumb, while clawhammer picking is mostly a down-picking style in which the hand is formed into a claw-like shape.
Podolak has now “frailed,” hammered, strummed and picked – two finger style – the banjo for a quarter of a century.
He founded the Duhks (pronounced Ducks), a folk fusion group, in 2002 in Winnipeg, Canada.
The Duhks original works run the gamut of influences.
Members have come and gone too, like former guitarist Jordan McConnell, an instrument maker who built four banjos for Podolak.
The band currently includes Colin Savoie Levac on guitar, Jessee Havey as lead vocalist, Rosie Newton as a substitute fiddler and percussionist Kevin Joaquin Garcia, who joined the band two months before the group recorded their 2014 album, “Beyond the Blue.” Garcia has brought a trove of African influences, Podolak said.
Genre naming aside, the Duhks are musically tolerant and diverse bunch.
“We’re definitely not folkfascists in this band. We all have an open spirit and an open mind when it comes to music,” he said.
En route from Cleveland to Toronto, Podolak spoke about his banjo and the band.
360: How does the mood of “clawhammer” banjo differ from bluegrass banjo?
Podolak: Clawhammer is very rhythmic and sometimes it is a lot mellower. Bluegrass banjo you play with picks and it is a relentless rolling pattern, and clawhammer is a bit more dynamic. … So just a very rhythmic, funky, thumb-driven way of playing.
360: What does your Canadian heritage bring to this largely Appalachian style of banjo and to your music?
Podolak: It’s not indigenous to our part of the world. For me, because I never got into any other instrument, it’s been the avenue to express musical thought and my interface with the musical world. I like to play Irish music, I like to play African music. … Because I didn’t grow up in Appalachia there is a lot of biases that I don’t have. The band has always, instead of plugging up the differences, celebrated the similarities and the differences.
360: The five string banjo has many different tunings, what is your favorite?
Podolak: One of the most interesting I know is F#, D, E, A, D, and that’s starting from the fifth string. I play this tune called “Lost Gander” in that tuning. I learned it from Mike Seeger (an American folk musician and folklorist) at the Swannanoa Gathering when I was a kid. My goto is “Mountain Minor” or G modal tuning. It’s great because you can play in major and minor keys. I tend to use modal a lot and I love it.
360:What was that about Mike Seeger?
Podolak: I went to a banjo camp and there was a banjo styles class. … Luckily for me, Mike showed us a whole bunch of ways of playing and played “Lost Gander.” We all went nuts because it was played with harmonics in a twofinger picking style. It was beautiful, just beautiful, so I learned that.
360: Where is the most interesting place the Duhks have played in Canada?
Podolak: I love playing in places like Cape Breton Island or Prince Rupert, British Columbia … really remote places that when you go there you say, “Man, I’m on the edge of the world.” When it comes down to it I love playing in Quebec. There they have a wonderful traditional culture of Quebecois music. … It’s incredible, the music, the party and the dance.
360: How does the 2014 album represent a change from the Duhks’ 2008 release?
Podolak: The current lineup of the Duhks really acknowledges the roots of the band, where the band came from, while being completely new and its own thing, whereas when the band changed in 2007, we tried to go into a completely different direction. I think people like this record because while being completely new it sounds like the Duhks.
If You Go:
What: The Duhks
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Jones Theatre at Daggy Hall, WSU Campus, northwest corner of Idaho Street and College Avenue
Cost: $16 Adults, $13 seniors (60 and older), free for WSU students with ID