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Banjo Festival Showcases Unique Uses Of An Old Instrument

Banjo camps and academic discussions of the centuries-old instrument have been taking place for years, according to Greenfield, Massachusetts, musician Michael Nix. But there are not many events that showcase how the picking and playing of the banjo has evolved.

This weekend he's hosting the first New American Banjo Festival.

Because of the pandemic, the festival has been canceled three times. It was scheduled to be held at venues in Turners Falls and Greenfield. But as musicians learned in the past year that video streaming can be high quality — and bring in an audience — Nix was eager to keep this date.

The idea for the festival came out of Nix’s association with Banjo Gathering, an academic conference filled with scholars talking about early banjo history, how the banjo relates to culture, and the latest in banjo manufacturing — but not enough performance, Nix said.

“I started thinking, well, there's really no outlet for performers who do new things on the banjo,” Nix said. “So why don't I start a festival that has the same sort of aesthetic as the Banjo Gathering [to] explore new uses for the banjo?”

The festival features about half-dozen performers, including Kate Spencer from Montague.

“Kate uses her banjo to play a style of old time music that's not based on the the Piedmont style that you find in North Carolina,” Nix said.

Without getting too technical, Nix said Spencer plays in a way she can accompany others in a banjo manner we're typically not used to hearing. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g_PLhzH3UBE

Another musician in the mix will be Aaron Jonah Lewis from Detroit.

“He is a virtuoso finger stylist who interprets ragtime based music from the 1800s from both the U.S. and England,” Nix said.

Nix, also a nationally known musician and an educator, said it’s important to acknowledge the banjo as an historical cultural icon that's fraught with racism — from how it arrived in the U.S. via Africans sold into slavery, to how it was largely popularized by white men in blackface performing minstrel shows.

Yet when it comes to representing the origins of the banjo, Nix acknowledged this year's festival falls short.

“One of the things that I'm sorry about is that I wasn't able to land a Black performer,” Nix said.

Musician and Banjar inventor Michael Nix is the organizer of the New American Banjo Festival.
Credit Courtesy of Michael Nix
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Musician and Banjar inventor Michael Nix is the organizer of the New American Banjo Festival.

Next year, in a theater or some other in-person venue, Nix hopes to have more diversity among festival performers.

Nix will also perform — on the Banjar, a seven-string instrument he invented that combines elements of the banjo and classical guitar.

Among the compositions he'll play is “https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W0vVsKj5HBQ" target="_blank">Koromanti.” It's based on a transcription of music performed by enslaved people in Jamaica in 1688, Nix said.

“So this is an example of how I'm trying to refer back to the enslaved people and their music by using an instrument that I have designed to play echoes of music from that past,” Nix said.

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