The ‘cockroach of instruments’: Why the banjo will never die03/01/2023
By Nick Galvin
Don’t bother telling Bela Fleck any banjo jokes. He’s heard them all before and, while he no longer bothers getting angry, he’s just not interested.
The world’s pre-eminent banjo player is happy to let his virtuosity do the talking, effectively silencing the ill-informed snark with 15 Grammys and 35 nominations across more categories than any other artist. There is no genre he is not happy to bust – from jazz to classical and rock to, of course, bluegrass.
Bela Fleck is arguably the best player ever.Credit:
“Obviously, I’m very, very serious about the banjo partly in response to all the jokes and that Duelling Banjos ‘squeal like a pig’ garbage,” he says, down the line from his Nashville home, in reference to that terrifying scene in Deliverance.
Much of that stereotype comes from the mistaken idea that the instrument is purely associated with poor white southerners, while ignoring its vast history stretching to West Africa and beyond. African slaves brought it to the Americas, where it was then co-opted by their oppressors.
Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn are touring Australia together, combining their different banjo styles.Credit:Jim McGuire
“It disappeared from Black culture largely because during and after slavery white folks would paint themselves black and sing songs about how lovely plantation life was,” says Fleck. “That put a really bad taste in the mouths of Black people. They wanted to get away from it and when the guitar came around they grabbed that and the banjo was basically excised, leaving the white southern stereotype, which is only part of the picture.
“Now, we’re teaching people and trying to get back to a more realistic version of the story of the banjo, which is very diverse.”
In the past couple of decades, the banjo has gone a long way towards shedding its unwarranted cultural baggage, helped along by bands such as Mumford and Sons, Old Crow Medicine Show and even Taylor Swift. And behind it all, doing the hard yards of banjo evangelism and showing just what the instrument is capable of has been Fleck, arguably the best ever.
“Something shifted around the 2000s where I’d go play a college and instead of people flapping their arms and going, ‘Yeehaw!‘, they’d go, “Whoa, what’s that? That’s cool’,” he says.
New York-born Fleck began playing at the relatively late age of 15 when his grandfather gifted him a banjo.
The trigger for the young Fleck’s banjo passion, as with most players, was hearing the music of banjo great Earl Scruggs, who revolutionised the instrument with his invention of the three-finger picking style now known simply as “Scruggs Style”. That sound, most closely associated with bluegrass, is what most people bring to mind when they think of banjo music.
“I heard him play and it shook me up,” says Fleck. “I didn’t know what it was but it was the best thing I ever heard. After that I couldn’t put the banjo down.”
He started taking lessons from the legendary Tony Trischka and within three years was touring professionally.
“I was always the guy who was real serious about it and put in as many hours playing as I could and was always trying to learn new things,” he says.
That restlessness has defined an extraordinary career and collaborations with a seemingly limitless number of diverse musicians from the late jazz great Chick Corea to legendary cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
His latest album, the Grammy award-winning My Bluegrass Heart represents a return to where it all started. However, the record, a collaboration with some of the finest bluegrass players going around, is definitely not your grandpa’s bluegrass.
“We worked really hard to create something hopefully unique with a lot of connections to the roots but hopefully also a step into some different directions that haven’t been done before,” says Fleck, who is touring Australia with his partner Abigail Washburn, a superlative banjo player and vocalist in her own right. The pair married after meeting at a square dance in Nashville, cementing a remarkable musical partnership as a well as a personal one.
Washburn plays an older style called clawhammer, giving rise to more than a few jokes about it being a “mixed marriage”. However, the rare combination of the two styles is a beguiling blend revealed on their three joint albums.
“She pushes me to be more melodic and more thoughtful and less show-off and I push her to step up her technical game,” says Fleck. “We find musical collaborations that are interesting and strong for both of us.”
As to future projects, Fleck remains committed to exploring the outer limits of the instrument to which has dedicated his life and of which he never tires.
“The banjo is like the cockroach of musical instruments,” he says. “It has a way of getting reinvented and coming back again and again. You can’t stamp it out, it’s got too much life in it.”
Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, Singular Voices, City Recital Hall, March 7
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