CURTIS CARLISLE BOUTERSE & BANJERS: FRETLESS BANJOS
Hear this banjer on my CDs. For information click here.
The word ‘banjer’ may need introduction to the general public. The earliest references to what modern audiences call the ‘banjo’ all approximate to the sound ‘banjer.’ Thomas Jefferson, no literary slouch, spelled it banjar. Modern rural players traditionally call it banjer. If those who developed the instrument, kept it alive for two centuries, and continue to play it even today call it banjer, I feel thoughtful people should agree: banjer it is.
I suspect that ‘banjo’ came about when an early urban observer asked a country player (black or white) what he called the instrument. Upon hearing something like ‘banjer,’ the chronicler overcompensated thusly: “We know these people call potatoes ‘taters,’ tomatoes ‘maters,’ and yellow ‘yaller,’ ipso facto this cannot be a banjer but, rather, a banj-O.” The word banjo, being already in common usage, may be used for speaking generically, or about the modern instrument, but the traditional, fretless, especially handmade, instrument is a banjer.
I’ve never really played a fretted banjo. I picked them up occasionally in the early days when banjos were scarce and I was first beginning to play. But my first instrument was one I made in my friend Charles Thomas Young’s workshop in 1963. We used hand tools only because neither of us trusted ourselves with too much power. Slow and steady won the race. The tortoise has always been my totem.
I had been inspired by my friendship with Stu Jamieson and listening to him play his home-made fretless banjo. At San Diego State we had a folksong society and a good friend, Warren Stromberg, had just bought a Frank Proffitt black walnut banjer–the most beautiful instrument I had ever seen. I learned to play on it and picked it every chance I got. After college Warren moved away and I dreamed about that banjer. Forty years later my dream came true when Warren sold it to me. It hangs next to the flame maple Proffitt I bought in 1964.
INSTRUMENTS DON’T MAKE MUSIC, PEOPLE MAKE MUSIC.
It is important to remember that the instrument is always the servant of the player. Most of the great old-time fiddle and banjo players learned on homemade instruments that wouldn’t pass muster nowadays. I have always encouraged players to make their own instruments. As the great English composer Gustav Holst famously said, ‘Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.’ Not that he was encouraging mediocrity, but if we never crawl, we will never run. I am delighted by the many websites of people who have built banjos out of coffee cans and baseball bats. Anyone who is a musician and has never tried to build an instrument is missing great pleasure and profound insight into the music-making process.
Having said that, I would like to offer some of the work I have been doing lately. If you are inspired to launch off on your own, congratulations and good luck. I would love to see what you accomplish. And if you decide you want one of my banjers, I salute your obvious good taste and look forward to hearing your reactions.
I have made a number of banjers over the years, including a copy of the lovely instrument played by the young black man in the famous 1856 painting by William Sydney Mount. I had always intended to try a gourd banjer and, as the trickle of gourd instruments became a stream in recent years, I plunged into the torrent.
In addition to my exposure to old-time banjers and other traditional instruments I am an ethnomusicologist. I study the music-making process in the web of human culture. One of my greatest interests is the analysis of musical instruments around the world. My approach to gourd banjers has thus been from two different and complementary directions: the American historical and the African contextual.
One of the most important insights from this process is that there is no one, authentic, gourd banjer. There is a range of possible ways to approach the instrument. If we had numbers of extant banjers we would look for similarities and differences. We could, perhaps identify traditions, styles, individual hands. Without these we must gather information from a wide range of sources and make arbitrary, if informed, decisions.
It is agreed that the idea of the banjer came from West Africa, though much research remains to be done to flesh out the details. There are a number of similar instruments and, whether a physical instrument was transported to the New World or not, banjo-like instruments were reported in the Caribbean and the American colonies. The basic structure of the banjer is simple, and shared with instruments around the world: a resonator (often covered with a skin) and a neck. Resonators abound in nature: seed pods, gourds and other dried fruits, turtle shells. American Indian rattles used some of the same materials. Gourds were common in early colonial America and an obvious choice for the resonator. Skins of various animals were plentiful byproducts of hunting as well as farm slaughtering. All these elements were present in the instruments that Africans played.
However, the banjer was substantially different from its African inspiration. It was a new creation, integrating African and European influences in a unique way. The same process was at work in language, food, religion, and all aspects of the slave world toward the end of the eighteenth century. Slaves were active in music making on European instruments from earliest times and likely adapted the idea of the neck with its implied fingerboard and the curvilinear scroll and pegs from the ubiquitous violin.
I decided to create an instrument which was as simple and light as possible, utilizing basic European tool technology and construction methods combined with an African concept of the remembered instrument which was adapting to the new world and new materials. The neck and scroll reflect the variety of undulating patterns which characterized early banjers. The neck is stabilized against the gourd with two simple pins. There is no fingerboard and the simple tailpiece is tied on to the end of the perchpole. The gourds are burned with traditional West African gourd designs. The bridges, as with all of the earliest instruments, are of soft woods: pine and cedar.