On the origin of banjo

Boulder, Colorado banjo virtuoso Jayme Stone is a man who takes his whimsy seriously. His new Juno award winning album Africa to Appalachia, a collaboration with griot (West African poet) singer and kora player Mansa Sissoko was the product of several years of travel in the heart of Mali learning the roots of the banjo, it’s music and the idiosyncrasies that never made it to America. On Saturday, July 18th, as part of the Wreckhouse International Jazz and Blues Festival, Stone and Sissoko will be performing in the Bowring Park Amphitheatre.

Patrick Canning caught up with him to ask a few questions.

How did you and Mansa Sissoko meet?
We met during Mansa’s first visit to Canada in 2004 and hit it off immediately. He’s as warm and generous a person as he is a musician and the music happened so naturally. Mansa was invited to play a show in Toronto and I ended up sitting in the whole night.

The kora (a 21-string harp-lute) and banjo seem to compliment each other quite naturally and beautifully. Does it surprise you that there isn’t more of a precedent for the combination?
Well, we’ve spent some quality time together, learning about each others’ playing and trying to build bridges between our different musical cultures. I also spent a couple of years learning and listening to music from Mali, which helps make the collaboration feel organic. There’s a long history of the kora and the ngoni, an African lute considered to be one of the banjo’s ancestor, so it makes sense. The banjo is like an ngoni that went through the industrial revolution.

You spent quite awhile in Mali studying African music and the historical roots of the banjo first hand. Did you find the locals understood what you were trying to get at with your research or was it difficult to get that across?
What everybody got was that I was passionate about their music and I was doing my homework. When you show up in a village and play them traditional songs people are familiar with, they understand the intent and get excited about making music.

What was the most surprising discovery you made on that trip?
Seeing people in remote villages playing banjo-like instruments with a technique that looked almost exactly like Pete Seeger’s was astounding.

Living proof of the banjo’s African roots.

Did Mansa have any part in your decision to go to Mali?
Absolutely! While I knew the banjo came from West Africa and I loved the music, it was meeting Mansa that made the whole project come to life. I knew immediately that I wanted to immerse myself in his culture and find out where the music came from.

Are there any other areas of global cross-cultural pollination that you would like to explore or do you feel there is still a lot of ground to cover in this present combination?
I am beginning to dream up a new album that will explore music based on dance from around the globe: reels, hornpipes, polskas, mazurkas, strathspeys and sambas from Sweden, Scotland, Brazil and the Americas. Look out for that in the fall of 2010.

Jayme Stone and Mansa Sissoko will be performing at the Bowring Park Amphitheatre on July 18 at 3pm as part of the Wreckhouse International Jazz and Blues Festival. For more information, visit www.wreckhousejazzandblues.com