Tunes to beat the band and better the banjo


The banjo had a tough upbringing, but is now more well known for its sense of fun – something We Banjo 3 are hoping to capitalise on

IT’S AN instrument that can elicit a slow drawl of a smile or send shudders down the spine, depending on whether your reference points are The Beverly Hillbillies or Earl Scruggs (the former) or Deliverance (possibly, the latter). Banjos, whether of the four-string, tenor or five-string bluegrass variety, have a tendency to evoke a strength of response in listeners that’s nothing short of visceral.

Yet, anyone with an ear cocked towards the musically complex may have stocked up over the years on fixes from Béla Fleck, Flatt and Scruggs, or Pete Seeger, not to mention, closer to home, the incomparable Gerry “Banjo” O’Connor.

Lately, the atmosphere’s been rattling to the strains of an intriguing trio hell-bent on ensuring the banjo reaches parts other instruments haven’t dreamed of. We Banjo 3, aka Enda Scahill, Martin and David Howley, revel in tracing the picaresque pathways taken by the instrument, from its origins in Africa, to its crossing to the US on slave ships and its ultimate morphing into shapes which we now recognise as bluegrass, Old Timey American music and, yes, even that much-maligned, racist form of artistic expression, minstrelsy.

The banjo’s arrival in Irish music was belated, in comparison to the fiddle and flute, but Martin Howley is convinced that its colourful past is key to the energy and vigour that We Banjo 3 bring to the instrument today.

“It’s amazing,” he says, “but when you learn about where the tunes come from, it really changes the energy and dynamic you play tunes with.” Songs from Cape Breton, Chicago, West Virginia and North Carolina cosy up alongside others from Sligo and Tipperary on the band’s debut album, The Roots Of The Banjo Tree.

Martin’s comment segues seamlessly into a post script from younger brother David: “It’s like singing a song. To fully sing a song, you have to understand the writer’s feeling and intention, and sometimes you have to go in search of where an old tune or song came from to fully understand that.”

A Kentucky tune on The Roots Of The Banjo Tree, called Sail Away Ladies, was played by Uncle Bunt Stevens in 1926 when he won the title of world champion fiddler. His prize consisted of €1,000, a new car, a suit and a set of false teeth. We Banjo 3 are still hopeful of competing for such generous spoils, though David Howley feels that at the age of 21, he mightn’t have much call for a new set of teeth for a while yet. Right now, We Banjo 3 are focused on connecting with their growing audience through the music.

“Playing sessions, you could play 500 tunes of an evening,” Enda Scahill muses, “but at the end of the day, they’re just strings of notes that you know very well. When we were setting our stall out on this exploration of the banjo journey, we wanted to communicate these great stories that connect the tunes to their past. And we’re loving that.”

“I think we all share the opinion that our favourite albums are those that have a real sense of purpose and integrity about them,” Martin adds. “They have a deeper connection to the music, and you feel like you’re unfolding a book, taking a journey.

“That’s what we wanted to do with this banjo album: choosing songs and tunes from different parts of the world, from different eras and tracing the connections between them. And songs like Tie Me Down, which is about emigration, are so on point now.”

Martin Howley reflects on the contradictions inherent in the instrument and its music. “The banjo was played by people in Africa, who became slaves in America, and who were living and working in horrendous conditions. Yet it’s very joyous and hopeful music, in spite of the all the drudgery of the lives they lived. And it has such a deep connection with Irish music, which survived the worst ravages of political and social oppression.

“The banjo has this abundance of innate fun that probably is no coincidence, given its origins. And that’s just one of the things we love about it.”

The Roots Of The Banjo Tree is available from The band play the Palace Bar And Loft, Athlone Folk Club tonight, Ionad Cultúrtha, Ballyvourney, Co Cork tomorrow, and Tipperary Excel Centre on Saturday

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