The history of the five-string banjo, among the very first truly American-born instruments, provides a revelatory lens through which to view the immense contributions of African cultural traditions to the development of American popular music and culture. The instrument we now know as the banjo was derived from lutes enslaved Africans brought to the New World, most notably the West African n’goni and kora. The European violin (fiddle) and the African-derived banjo likely comprised the “first duet” in the New World, providing the cornerstone of American musical forms for centuries to come. By the nineteenth century, the banjo was America’s most popular instrument, but it was not until the 1940s, when Earl Scruggs introduced his game-changing three-finger picking style, that the banjo found its home in bluegrass music. This special set, From Africa to Appalachia, will bring together Grammy-nominated master Malian griot Cheick Hamala Diabate with Sammy Shelor, one of the most celebrated bluegrass banjoists of his generation.
Cheick Hamala Diabate was born into a griot family in Kita, Mali. In West African tradition, the griot is a male troubadour-historian whose hereditary role is to preserve and share the history, genealogy, and oral traditions of his people, in addition to providing advice and practicing diplomacy. As a child, Diabate learned to play the n’goni, a stringed instrument that is the precursor to the American banjo. His knowledge grew to include the history of Mali, passed down in his family for more than 800 years. Though Diabate plays the traditional trio of griot instruments—the n’goni, kora (gourd harp lute), and balafon (wooden xylophone)—he also embraces the panoply of sounds he has discovered in America. Like many American string players, including Béla Fleck, with whom Diabate has collaborated and performed, Diabate was intrigued by the similarities between the n’goni and the banjo. Seeking to mesh the sounds of the two instruments, Diabate collaborated with banjo player Bob Carlin on From Mali to America, which earned a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional World Music Album in 2007. While many American musicians have traveled to West Africa or picked up the n’goni—thanks in part to Diabate’s introductions and instruction—few African musicians have engaged the banjo the way Diabate has.
Sammy Shelor, of tiny Meadows of Dan in Patrick County, Virginia, is one of the greatest bluegrass banjoists of our time. Sammy’s mountain musical pedigree runs deep. The Shelors are one of nine families who have carried on the Patrick County music tradition for more than 200 years. Sammy started playing the banjo at the age of four, and was performing with local bands by the time he was ten years old. At nineteen, he became a full-time professional musician, joining the band that eventually became the Virginia Squires. For more than twenty-five years, Sammy has led the Lonesome River Band, one of the finest bluegrass bands in the country. He has won the International Bluegrass Music Association’s award for Banjo Performer of the Year five times, and he received the 2011 Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass. Sammy deftly combines tradition and innovation, making him one of the most compelling banjoists in bluegrass.
Riley Baugus, of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, represents the best of old-time American banjo and song. His powerful singing voice and his expert musicianship place him squarely in the new generation of quality American roots music. Immersed in music both at home and at church, Riley worked as a welder and blacksmith, playing banjo and making instruments in his spare time, until called upon to provide music for the Academy Award-winning film Cold Mountain. From there, Riley has made his own path, building in-demand instruments and performing at festivals all over the world. He first came to music through his family, who shared with him a love of old-time music and a record collection that included, amongst others, the works of fellow North Carolinian Doc Watson, which touched the young Riley on a molecular level. His family’s attendance at Regular Baptist church gave him early exposure to the unaccompanied singing that is a time-honored tradition for ballad singers throughout the Appalachians. Starting on the fiddle, Riley quickly moved on to the banjo, building his first instrument from scrap wood with his father. With friend and neighbor, Kirk Sutphin, Riley began honing his musical skills. Together they visited elder traditional musicians throughout North Carolina and Virginia, learning the Round Peak-style at the knee of National Heritage Fellow Tommy Jarrell and other traditional musicians of the area, including Dix Freeman, Chester McMillian, Verlin Clifton, and Paul Sutphin. When not teaching or building banjos, Riley can be found out on the road performing. He plays with the Dirk Powell Band and with Kirk Sutphin, and he is a frequent guest of Polecat Creek and of Tim O'Brien with Dirk Powell.