Canadian banjoist Jayme Stone is a restless musical explorer. Stone has cast his prodigious banjo chops into a vast assortment of musical roles, following the instrument's origins back to Africa and tracing the instrument's disparate pathways around the globe.
Stone's latest project The Lomax Project is a tribute to the great American folklorist Alan Lomax. Jayme Stone will perform with the Lomax Project this weekend at Bloomington, Indiana's Lotus Fest.
NUVO: The banjo has become a sort-of iconic instrument within traditional Anglo-American music. When most people think of the banjo they immediately think of bluegrass or Appalachian folk music. But in reality the banjo is an African instrument, right?
Jayme Stone: Yes, the narrow white-washed view is that the banjo is an Anglo-Saxon invention. But anyone who studies the history of the instrument knows it goes deeper than that. The banjo started coming over to the New World and the Caribbean and South America in the late 1600s. There's many, many examples of the banjo being mentioned in the 1700s. It came over on slave ships — and I should clarify not just the banjo, but ancestors of the banjo and more than anything the blueprint for an instrument of its structure and style with some kind of carved wooden resonator, or gourd as it was in West Africa, stretched over with some kind of animal skin. There could be any number of strings, but typically five strings which included a short drone string that was typically included as a rhythmic device.
For well over a hundred years all the records of the banjo we have here demonstrate that it was an African-American instrument. In the 1800s the minstrel banjo tradition started which was essentially white people dressing up as caricatures of African-Americans. They were playing on racial stereotypes and watering down elements of African-American music traditions they'd heard. It's kind of a dark history but I think it's important to understand because this was the most popular music in America for a long time.
But still to this day there are Black string bands and a real diversity of banjo traditions, not just the ones we have in the popular imagination.
NUVO: In 2008 you recorded the album Africa to Appalachia which features your banjo in collaboration with West African musicians. What inspired that project?
Stone: I had discovered all the information I just mentioned to you, and I had simultaneously fallen in love with the music of Mali. I got introduced to a griot — a traditional storyteller, and musician of the culture there. His name is Mansa Sissoko. We played some together and we did a couple of concerts. I made a bunch of recordings of him playing kora and singing traditional songs. I went back and tried to adapt them to the banjo and I really fell in love with that process and that music. I vowed to find some way to go over to Mali and I did in 2007. I was in Mali for just shy of three months. I traveled around and made field recordings and met with traditional musicians. I tried to learn as much as I could firsthand.
By the time I got back, serendipitously, Mansa had married a woman from Quebec and moved to Canada. So we were able to collaborate on the same continent and we tried to find a way to blend these different aesthetics. We focused largely on adapting traditional songs.
NUVO: After traveling to Africa and completing that project did you gain a greater insight or understanding of the banjo's history and roots in Africa?
Stone: It transformed my playing style. I now will forever think polyrhythmically. I also adapted some techniques like playing on the frets or doing palm muting which sounds a little like the ngoni or almost like an mbira. I feel like it changed me more than anything. I have learned about the banjo's ancestors, but I mostly have focused on playing a modern banjo with a more modern technique and trying to sort-of evoke some of the sounds and feelings of that music rather than other people who have acquired an ngoni and tried to learn the traditional way of planning.
NUVO: Your current album project and touring band is a tribute to the folklorist and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. What prompted you to develop Jayme Stone's Lomax Project?
Stone: I'd long been aware of the Alan Lomax recordings. Around the time I started playing the banjo I read a book that he wrote called The Land Where the Blues Began. Slowly over 20 years or so of being into traditional music, it dawned on me how many songs that I knew came from recordings he made. It all came together when I read John Szwed's amazing Lomax biography Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World. I found myself enraptured in the stories of his collecting, and also the stories of the people and traditions and places he gathered songs from. Around the time I read the book the Lomax estate digitized about 15,000 recordings and put them online for free. They're online at culturalequity.org and anybody can listen to these recordings. I spent many, many hours listening. I thought it would be really amazing to work with this vast archive of songs and to do that in collaboration. I call the Lomax Project a "collaboratory." It's a gathering of musicians I love who have one foot in traditional music and one foot in some other style. We work together to breathe new life into these songs.
NUVO: That collaborative approach seems to be essential in your creative process. So much of the music you've made involves fusing together traditions. What about that approach is so appealing to you as an artist?
Stone: Yeah, that's a thread that's run though everything I've done. What attracts me most about musicians is people who have their own voice. You know right away when you hear Tim O'Brien sing one note, or when you hear Bill Frisell strike a note on the guitar, or when you hear Caetano Veloso open his mouth. For me it doesn't matter what tradition a musician is in, I listen to the people who've found a way to not only be a torch-bearer for whatever type of music they play - but to also just sound like themselves. That's something that attracts me to musicians.
With those musicians I feel like I can't really write their parts exactly. Though I can have a vision for what I want the sound or feel of the music to be like. I like creating an atmosphere where people can be themselves and I can curate that to the degree it feels right. The trust and leeway I give people allows them to explore and we kind of get the best of both worlds. We get the interesting things about each person.
NUVO: Finally, I was curious if there's any tradition of music you've been eager to explore through your banjo that you haven't worked with yet?
Stone: That's a good question. There's many, many, many. But one thing that comes to mind is this tradition of music in the Mexican state of Veracruz called Son Jarocho. There's this one guy in particular,Ramón Gutiérrez. He's in a band called Son de Madera. He's a beautiful player but he's kind of buried in that band. Somebody gave me a copy of his solo record. It was a small run and they actually got it in Mexico directly from him. It's mostly solo and you really hear him shine. It almost sounds like he's improvising Bach partitas but way more folky. There's a beautiful intersection of Spanish guitar and traditional folk music form Mexico and also certain African rhythms. I've always loved that recording and I've always thought either with him or without him it would be cool to explore some of that music.