Black Banjo, Blues and Jazz at ASU
Don Vappie finds the banjo intriguing.
The prolific musician - a master at tenor banjo, mandolin, guitar, you name it - hails from New Orleans, but is bringing his expertise to Boone as part of the Black Banjo, Blues and Jazz Concert and Workshops at Appalachian State University March 29-30.
The banjo, he agrees, is an intriguing instrument - not only for its distinctive twang and African origins, but its public perception.
"For my generation, banjo became this icon of all the bad that happened - slavery, racism, inequality," he said. "But it always amazed me ... how a people could abandon something that their ancestors brought over from Africa."
But Vappie's turned those connotations upside down. Adept at jazz, funk, R&B and soul (to name a few styles), he's given banjo a new face. "I actually turned it around," he said.
Having performed in New Orleans' legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band from the late '80s on, Vappie strove to break stereotypes. Audiences wanted that traditional New Orleans sound, "which is easy to do in a town that depends on tourism," he said.
But Vappie wanted to experiment, to do something different with his instrument. "The bottom line is to be yourself, to give people the chance to understand," he said.
And that's a theme of Black Banjo, Blues and Jazz - self-expression and education, a combination that led to the birth of the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, the original members of which first met at 2005's inaugural event, the Black Banjo Gathering.
"A lot of players came, and people started meeting each other," said Watauga Arts Council folklorist and event co-founder Mark Freed. "Some cool things came out of it - like the Carolina Chocolate Drops."
The Drops' newest member, multi-instrumentalist Hubby Jenkins, will appear at this year's event, performing music and sharing his thoughts. But Vappie and Jenkins are only part of the lineup.
This year's musicians include Cheick Hamala Diabate, originally from Mali, who's mastered the ngoni, an African lute instrument that predates the American banjo.
Jerron "Blind Boy" Paxton is also a multi-instrumentalist, who Freed said can play "anything with strings on it," but also piano in the style of Fats Waller.
Carl Johnson, of Tennessee, is an African-American bluegrass banjo player, "and there are very, very few and far between black banjo players who play in the three-finger bluegrass style," Freed said.
The Pops Ferguson Blues Trio also returns, featuring Lenoir-raised front man Clyde "Pops" Ferguson, who Freed described as a "sort of a contemporary of Etta Baker." Ferguson and company, including his son, Clyde Jr., will be joined by elder East Coast bluesman Boo Hanks.
"These guys play in that really older Piedmont style of blues guitar ... more of a ragtime influence," Freed said. "Piedmont style has a lot of ties to earlier finger-style banjo playing."
Grammy-winning multi-instrumentalist David Holt will also appear, as will Beech Mountain-based banjo and dulcimer player (and maker) Rick Ward, and James Leva, a fiddler, singer and songster from Lexington, Va.
"It'll be a really great showcase that really features a nice array of everything," Freed said.
Like last year's event, the third gathering will feature both workshops and concerts, so audience members can hear the story, thoughts and history behind the music.
Co-founder and ASU English professor Cece Conway wrote the book on banjo's influence in Appalachian - literally. The author of "African Banjo Echoes in Appalachian: A Study of Folk Traditions," Conway's fascinated not only by the historical aspect, but also seeing history in the making.
"One of the things that's happened over the years ... is that new genres of music have emerged," she said. "For example, Cheick Hamala Diabate will play the ngoni with James Leva on fiddle - and that combination didn't exist until they met each other."
The series kicks off Tuesday, March 29, at 7 p.m. with "Talk and Songs" in the Plemmons Student Unions' Blue Ridge Ballroom, followed by musical performances from 8:30 to 9 p.m.
The music continues Wednesday, March 30, at noon in the Plemmons Solarium, with "Music and Talk," followed by the gathering's grand opening from 3:30 to 5 p.m.
It culminates with an all-star concert at Legends Music Hall on Hardin Street, with doors opening at 7 p.m. and show time at 7:30 p.m. The gathering is free, except for the concert, which costs $5 in advance and $7 at the door for students, and $10 in advance and $12 at the door for general public.
"All are welcome," Conway said, "especially those who might want to learn about something they haven't heard too much about."
The Black Banjo, Blues and Jazz Concert and Workshops is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, ASU Department of English, ASU College of Arts and Sciences, Appalachian Heritage Council, Center for Appalachian Studies, Friends of the Library, Watauga Arts Council, Avery Arts Council, Alex and Anne Bernhardt and Rosemary Horowitz.
For ticket information, call (828) 262-3030. For more information on the event, visit events.appstate.edu/black-banjo-blues-jazz-concert-workshops.