It’s altogether possible that you’ve never heard a gourd banjo. Few people have.But that wouldn’t have been the case had you lived in the South prior to the Civil War. Before that time, gourd banjos were the primary instrument played by black slaves, who arrived by way of West Africa. Its influence on American music is undeniable and yet little remains of the music produced by this foundational instrument in American music history.
But not all is lost. Paul Ely Smith, Palouse musician, longtime banjo player and former music instructor at Washington State University, is releasing an album of gourd banjo music, titled “American Akonting.” A CD release and benefit concert takes place Saturday in Moscow.
Hoop banjos are what people most readily picture as a banjo, but gourd banjos were the original form. They came out of West Africa and have lower tones and a warm, rich sound. Hoop banjos were a variation and have a higher, almost twangy sound.
In the 1830s-40s, white performers popularized hoop banjos, appearing blackface and playing on racist stereotypes in minstrel shows. They played banjo music that was familiar to their white audiences, however, rather than an authentic African-American music style. While this minstrel music is well-documented, until recently it was believed that there was no documentation of the African-American banjo music it loosely mimicked. It simply wasn’t important, Smith said.
“There are all these references to blacks playing the gourd banjo, but there’s none of their music,” Smith said. “We don’t even know the name of a single black banjo player before the Civil War.”
Thirty years ago, Smith took a closer look at a piece titled “The Banjo” by Louis Moreau Gottschalk, a mid-1800s American composer. Smith realized that the song was a transcription of gourd banjo music, the only known complete document of African-American banjo music until the 1920s. It was this style of banjo music that formed the foundation of ragtime, which gave way to blues, jazz and eventually rock ‘n’ roll.
Once it was discovered, “The Banjo” served as a type of “Rosetta stone,” Smith said, to “translate” other music. The song utilizes distinct techniques that are common in West African music, but don’t appear until the 19th century in American music. It seemed obvious to Smith, then, that these techniques had been used all along by African-American musicians. By applying these techniques to minstrel songs that don’t seem to have a European origin, Smith can “translate” a song into what he believes it originally sounded like.
Years ago, he published a research paper on his findings and included a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, a Pulitzer-prize winning poet who condemned Gottschalk for lifting the African-American style of music. In their interactions, Brooks told Smith that until he made the music, no one was going to care what he had discovered. So he got to work building a gourd banjo.
Smith worked for a guitar and banjo maker for a short time in college, so he was somewhat familiar with the process and materials. But it wasn’t just the sound of the gourd banjos that hadn’t been documented, little remains of their construction and appearance as well. A historic painting depicting a gourd banjo helped inform Smith’s work, as well as looking into existing gourd banjo styles from West Africa. The resulting banjo looked right, but it didn’t sound right and Smith tabled the project.
“The first one I made held me back for 15 years,” Smith said.
When he later returned to the idea, interest had since grown in gourd banjos and the internet provided access to a community of other gourd banjo enthusiasts. He got back to work, with trial and error as his guide.
“I didn’t use any science when I did this, I just tried everything,” Smith said.
The gourd on Smith’s current banjo was grown by his brother-in-law. After it had dried, Smith carved it out — a texture that he compared to balsawood — and created a small opening at the top for the sound to come out. He applied a protective coating to the exterior and glued a goat skin to the top. The neck, made of a single piece of maple, is uniquely cut, enhancing the sound and functionality of the instrument.
Unlike traditional gourd banjos that were tuned by pulling leather straps up or down the neck of the instrument, Smith’s banjo includes mechanical tuners. He placed these at the bottom of the instrument, which maintains the right “look” for the neck as a single stick of wood. The design also has the advantage of weighting the instrument so it sounds and balances better.
“American Akonting” is available at the concert and on iTunes, CDBaby and Amazon. The album can be purchased directly for $10 from Smith, who can be contacted at www.palouserivermusic.com.
IF YOU GO:
WHAT: Paul Ely Smith, gourd banjo CD release and benefit concert for the Palouse Folklore Society
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Unitarian Universalist Church of the Palouse, Moscow
COST: $12/person, $10/members of Palouse Folklore Society