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– 13th November 2014

20 years ago I walked into a music shop in Belfast, fully intending to buy a saxophone – and walked out instead with a 5-string banjo.  Whatever alluring and mystical impulse overcame me on the day, it drew me towards this wonderful instrument.  Frankly; it changed my life and started me on the rocky road of a budding musician.

From the day that I first picked up the 5 string banjo I had no idea what future if any, I had as a player, but looking back retrospectively at my musical odyssey; it must have been the hand of fate that forced me to turn around and take note of the instrument hanging on the wall.  Like love at first sight, before you could even say the words ‘Kenny Gee’ all thoughts of playing saxophone had been abandoned at that very moment, and I have since grown to understand the wonderful potential that lies within this little known folk instrument.  After many hours of practice I have become a pretty proficient exponent of the instrument.  I play various styles; ranging from Irish Traditional, Bluegrass, Ragtime, Melodic, Single-String, and even the original form of banjo playing: Clawhammer.

The banjo has recently enjoyed a renaissance in modern popular music, largely due to the Nu-Folk sounds of Mumford and Sons.  It now appears on covers of music magazines and global stages, and is no longer just the accompanying instrument of the quiet backroom bluegrass amateur or Folk Club attendee. It has become part of the popular musical landscape, almost to the point where famous pop performers like Gary Barlow and James Blunt have swapped guitars and pianos in recent times in favour of the syncopated rhythms akin to this distinct Americana sound, in a bid to get in on the act.

We can safely say that the banjo has not always sustained a lasting romance with the music listening public.  Up until the 1970’s, it has largely been cult movies that have cameoed it’s whimsical sound and used it as a backdrop for other agendas.  The most infamous collaboration must certainly be as the soundtrack for the movie ‘Deliverance’.  Banjo enthusiasts would certainly agree; that any excuse to hear the syncopated sounds, shine a light on the inherent cultural heritage and rekindle the love affair with this instrument is a good enough excuse to hear it played.  As much as the movie ‘Deliverance’ did to publicise the instrument and glorify mountain music; the negative association with in-breeding and the backwater territories of the Southern States of America, stigmatized the instrument and generated a derisory context which remains hard to shift today.

During the 80’s and 90’s the rapid melodic sound fell out of favour, and was demoted to the shelves of the specialist music sellers.  It would be unfair during this period not to mention the incredible influence that leading American banjo player Bela Fleck had on me personally, and how he contributed to the public awareness of the banjo, single-handedly redefining the musical contexts within which it is now seen. In truth though, the banjo at this point in history was not a commercial sound and really only on the radar of folks like myself who where either learning the instrument or already proficient players.  I recall buying as many banjo cassette tapes, self-help books, and videos as I could lay my hands on.  Living in Northern Ireland as I did; they were as scarce as hen’s teeth, as were banjo teachers and other fellow enthusiasts.  I soon began to realize that my bid to learn the 5–String banjo might be a very lonely crusade.  Of course with the dawn of YouTube and on-line banjo academies; It’s become annoyingly easy to learn from the comfort of your own computer screen.

As my musical path unfolded, so indeed did my knowledge and history of the banjo.  I began to realize where my interest, may have been sparked. As a youngster I watched re-runs of the American sit-com The Beverley Hillbillys, which of course featured the soundtrack ‘The Ballad of Jed Clampett’ as played by the Bluegrass banjo godfather Earl Scruggs.  I learned of Scruggs and how he had developed the 3-finger style of playing that we refer to as Bluegrass banjo.  I was also keen to learn about the origins of the instrument. Originally an African construct: known as the ‘banjar’.  A basic and crude prototype fashioned from wood and animal skin; was carried over on the slave ships from Africa and was later played on the American plantations.  More intriguing though was finding out; that the development of the banjo in the 1800’s from a 4-stringed instrument to the 5-string – was attributed to my own namesake; Joel Walker Sweeney.

Could this be a very distant relative? Perhaps this was the real reason behind my attraction to the banjo. I never did look into that!

I have not only learned the music and styles of others, but; inspired by great players like Scruggs, Fleck, Bill Keith and John Hartford, I have incorporated the instrument into my own compositions and songs, blending Country, Bluegrass and Irish Music with eastern melodies.

Even for a diehard like myself; the banjo was not always deemed a good fit for my original songs and in the past – I stand accused of keeping my banjo activities and my songwriting mutually exclusive from each other. I have since grown to understand how it can add a very unique quality to my material when suitably arranged.  I shall let you be the judge of that, when the new album is released next year.

The recent popularity of the banjo today has been highlighted also by leading manufacturers.

Banjo entrepreneur Greg Deering, of American made Deering Banjos speaking to Time Magazine, observed that the trend towards banjos in pop music is on the rise and “sales are not slowing down”.  As an exponent and player of the newly culted instrument, this of course, is all ‘banjo music to my ears’.  The question is; how long can we enjoy basking in the glory of all this melodic eminence?

The music industry is not unlike the fashion industry.  It exists to define the new up-and-coming trends and of course; when it’s finished telling us what’s new and what’s not, it’s also telling us what we need to buy.  I am personally hoping that the banjo love affair is not over yet.

Mumford and Sons are on a sabbatical, and it will be interesting to see what music they produce on their return.  I think that the fate of this fine instrument will lie at the feet of it’s modern-day saviours, or perhaps a new band or artist waiting in the wings, given the chance.

Musical styles, as we all know, come in waves, and the record companies will be asking themselves; how long can we ride this ‘folk wave’ before it comes crashing down?  If the banjo has been given a clean bill of health by the music business for at least another year, this of course throws the door open for other hiers, to take up the mantle and add a new chapter onto it’s curious history.

Watch this space!

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