The Chaco-clad, North Face-toting students don't seem to notice the slow trickle of people entering the auditorium. Sprawled in hammocks or bustling to class, the Appalachian State University undergraduates focus on soaking up sunny weather, not sorting out the reason a gaggle of film cameras and strangely shaped instrument cases are heading into Farthing Auditorium, the largest at the Boone, N.C., school. Just another event on campus, another multitude of strangers taking up their parking spaces.
Inside, though, there is a different spirit, as if the whole room holds its breath. Cameras stand at the ready. The cases unzip and unsnap to reveal slender-necked string instruments. Suddenly, with a nod of the head from chief organizer Dr. CeeCee Conway, the quiet reception morphs into a heartfelt welcome.
Last weekend in the small collegiate mountain town, the Black Banjo Gathering united musicians, scholars and enthusiasts to celebrate the banjo tradition and to recognize its African, Afro-Caribbean and African-American origins. The banjo may be emblematic of white-mountain culture, but its often misunderstood roots lie in the gourd instruments of Africa. Complicated racial dynamics, rife with resilient creativity and heinous racism alike, shaped its evolution. Through workshops, concerts, panel discussions, lectures and late-night frolics, attendees at the Gathering sought to unravel that history while concurrently reveling in the instrument's music.
Tonight, though, it's revelry and not thorny history that owns the spotlight. A stacked concert packed with artists, from Mali's griot Cheick Hamala Diabate to North Carolina's own Riley Baugus to New Orleans' Creole jazz serenader Don Vappie, plays to a packed Farthing. This marks the anniversary of the beginning of "The Black Banjo Then and Now," an e-mail listserv that inspired the creation of the first Gathering in 2005. The initial convocation marked the first time such a vibrant cross-section of banjo-devotees gathered. It was an important one, leading to new scholarship (the opening of a traditional African instrument school in Gambia), new music (the formation of the Carolina Chocolate Drops) and new support for overlooked traditionalists (the recognition of Mebane's own Joe Thompson, who went on to receive the National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellowship for his lifetime of contributions in 2007).
Sitting in the audience among the fans and organizers are Blind Boy Paxton and Hubby Jenkins, two young African-American musicians as ready as any to take up the mantle as the next generation of black roots performers. Walking the streets of Boone later, they sardonically sing an improv blues about "Two Coons in a Boone Saloon," clicking rhythm bones and blowing harmonica riffs as they walk. Paxton wears a striped suit complete with a bowler hat and spectacle dangling from his pocket. Jenkins juxtaposes an old-school suit vest against dreadlocks and a bandana.
This antique aesthetic translates to their music: Paxton is an accomplished banjo, guitar and stride piano player, studying jazz at the New School in New York, where he complains they constantly "try to tell you Charlie Parker invented jazz." Jenkins plays guitar and banjo blues and has spent the past several years busking around the country and in and out of the roots scene in New York City.
"When I was about 17 or 18, I started getting into old timey music, specifically got into blues and I quit my job, dropped out of school, went traveling around the country and started playing the music and was very happy about it," Jenkins explains. In New York, he met Dom Flemons of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. "That's where I learned how to clawhammer. So, it's been a few years of me just doing that on my own in New York City where there's really no community for it whatsoever—let alone a black community that's into it. So when I heard about this going on, I was like 'I gotta get down there. I have to be involved in this.'"
For all the positivity in his story and at the Black Banjo Gathering at large, it's hard not to run the numbers on black involvement at the event. The question "Is it black enough?" springs to mind often, like when Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops is followed by someone like Rick Ward, a white banjo player from Beech Mountain. On the second day, a white performance artist painted his neck and put on a black mask to present a monologue from the perspective of an African-American minstrel banjo player only to be followed by Carl Johnson, an actual black banjo player.
Jenkins, though, seems tolerant and optimistic: "Somewhere along the line, black music and white music were very separated [...] that separation still exists today where black people don't even know the roots that they have in this country and that is a big problem. It even shows here at the black banjo gathering. But even if there's five black people who are here playing banjos and sharing with each other and teaching each other, those five black people can go out to five different places and maybe grab one other black person. You know what I mean?"