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Black Banjo Gathering Reunion at ASU March 23-28

Article Published: Mar. 18, 2010 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011
Black Banjo Gathering Reunion at ASU March 23-28

Tradition is timeless.

Inherently steeped in culture and history, it weaves its way into the present and beyond, and nowhere is this more evident than in music.

Justin Robinson of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, hailed as the first young black string band in 80 years, was quoted, saying, "Tradition is a guide, not a jailer. We play in an older tradition, but we are modern musicians."
The 2010 Black Banjo Gathering Reunion exemplifies this sentiment, blending music, education and tradition for a series of performances and lectures March 23-28 at Appalachian State University.

The reunion is set five years after the initial Black Banjo Gathering at Appalachian, which, more or less, happened by a simple twist of fate. Musician Tony Thomas had started the Black Banjo Then and Now list-serve, linking likeminded musicians online to network, share thoughts and discuss the banjo's legacy.

The musicians wanted to meet, but did not have a venue.

Mark Freed, now a folklorist for the Watauga Arts Council, was still in school and starting his term with the Appalachian Heritage Council, an arm of the Appalachian Popular Programming Society, when he saw the list-serve discussion.

He invited the musicians to gather at ASU, and soon preparations were under way, with a little help from his friends and the experts. Esteemed percussionist Sule Greg Wilson joined the effort, as did ASU professor of English and Appalachian Studies Dr. Cece Conway, author of "African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia." Chocolate Drops member Rhiannon Giddens also lent a hand.

Everything just fell into place, Freed said, including the critically acclaimed Carolina Chocolate Drops, when members Dom Flemons, Giddens and Robinson met for the first time.

"A lot of players got to meet and connect for the first time," Freed said. "Now, it's five years later, so why not come back and see where things are at, where people have taken it? It'll be exciting to see what people have to say now, five years later."

The reunion promises practically a week of events, showcasing the African roots of the banjo and its contribution to African-American culture and American music throughout the country, Conway said.
"Without the African gourd banjo, there would be no banjo in this country," she said. "It arrived no later than 1740, and for almost 100 years was played almost only by African-Americans."

In the 1830s, the instrument grew in popularity, as white musicians like Joel Sweeney, of Virginia, took it to the professional stage. "Sweeney either helped popularize or, according to some musicians, maybe even invented the open-back banjo we're familiar with today," Conway said.

The reunion will not only showcase black musical traditions, Freed said, but also how they've influenced American string band music. The gathering's diverse lineup is case in point, featuring Cheick Hamala Diabate, international master of the ngoni, banjo and guitar; reggae and blues guitarist Corey Harris; New Orleans jazz banjoist Don Vappie; John Cohen, folk musician, filmmaker and 50-year veteran of the New Lost City Ramblers; folksinger and banjoist Alice Gerrard; Tony Trischka, banjoist and mentor to banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck; old-time guitarist and banjoist Riley Baugus, whose music is featured on the Cold Mountain soundtrack; the Carolina Chocolate Drops; and more.
"And that's just the Wednesday night concert," Freed said.

The concert kicks off at 7:30 p.m. in Farthing Auditorium, located on Rivers Street on the ASU campus, and will proceed in a "showcase-style" event, featuring performances from a half-dozen groups, "highlighting an array of the African and African-American banjo styles," Freed said.

General admission tickets cost $20 in advance and $25 at the door, while student tickets cost $10 in advance and $15 at the door. Tickets are available at the Farthing Auditorium box office by calling (800) 841-2787 or visiting

All other concerts, lectures and workshops are free, but for the closing shows at ASU's Legends music hall on Friday and Saturday. Ticket prices have yet to be announced, but Freed is certain the cost will be minimal.

Other artists performing throughout the week include Tony Thomas, David Holt, Rick Ward, Clarke Buehling Cohen, Thomas Jefferson Jarrell, Steve Kruger, Dust Busters, Hubby and Jenkins, Jerron Paxton, Jim Lloyd, Carl Johnson, Paul Clarke, Pete Ross, George Gibson, Greg and Wayne Henderson, Ben Nelson, Ephriam McDowell, Algia Mae Hinton, Boo Hanks, John Dee Holeman, The Ebony Hillbillies, Gloria Gassaway, Joe Thompson, James Leva, Andy Cohen, Art Rosenbaum, Gail Gillespie and Greg Adams.

The Black Banjo Gathering Reunion is funded through a $30,000 grant from the National Endowment of the Arts. Conway wrote the grant to organize and document the reunion.

"Through the documentation ... we'll be able to provide this for future generations," she said. "I think what we've already learned is exciting and helps us wonder what will happen next. Lots of old music survives under the radar, and it provides a real sustenance to community and to cultural exchange."
It also provides a unique opportunity.

As Freed said, "There's nothing else like this. Period."

For more information, visit

Tuesday, March 23

John Cohen - 7 to 9 p.m., Belk Library, Rm. 114

Wednesday, March 24

Opening - 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., Farthing Auditorium foyer
Concert - 7:30 p.m., Farthing Auditorium

Thursday, March 25

Daytime Activities in Plemmons Student Union (Solarium & Linville Falls room)
Public program on Diversity & Representation - 12:30 to 2:30 p.m.
Talk and Music - 2:45 to 3:45 p.m.
Instrument Makers & Banjo Forum - 3:45 to 6 p.m.
Supper & Music - 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.

Jones House Community Center
JAM (Junior Appalachian Musicians) - 7:30 to 11 p.m.

Friday, March 26, and Saturday, March 27

By day: Workshops, panels, presentations in Linville Falls Room, Plemmons Student Union.
By night: Concerts, jams and frolics by night at Legends Music Hall, located on Hardin Street.

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