By Hannah Mayree, The Black Banjo Reclamation Project

The weekend of April 29—May 1 marked the third banjo building event produced by the Black Banjo Reclamation Project.

To date, we have facilitated trainings and provided technical assistance for over 30 Black crafters who are now well versed in the art of banjo making techniques and have received practical woodworking skills as well. This is a huge step for us as an organization that seeks to bring the resource of skills as well as practical and traditional knowledge of the banjo and African Diasporic folk practices to Black people, organizations and families.

Before we started building banjos, it was very difficult for us to locate Black banjo makers in this country. A traditional instrument maker in Miami, Florida named Eddie Osborne crafted an akonting (West African forerunner of the banjo) for the BBRP, and that was a huge inspiration for us to become savvy in crafting as well.

From the beginning the BBRP has been dedicated to creating systems that allow us to be sovereign and determine our paths forward regarding our relationships with Indigenous based traditions and practices that come from us, our people and our culture. The banjo in this modern era is still tethered to Black people, and our pull toward the sound and the instrument can feel like a natural-born instinct, even if it feels culturally distant from many. There is cultural memory that is alive in many people at this time, as we find more ways to connect to our strength, rooted in the land and the practices that have been with our families and ancestors since far before the disruption of enslavement.

It has always been our intention to be connected at the root level with the banjo. That means connecting with it at the source, the trees, growing our own materials, and learning the meaning and purpose of the elements used to produce healing in our lives.

Two years ago, following the very first Black Banjo Building Project that ever took place, we were thrilled to have so many seeds and we were eager to get planting. A group of us started dozens of gourd seeds and two years later, some of those very seeds actually became instruments! In fact, our sacred fire at the site of our Sacramento Banjo Build was the planting site of one of the first crops of gourds that was planted and grown as a result of this community-based work. As the fire burned and created ashes to nourish the soil, we couldn’t help but feel connected to the prayers of past generations that have gotten us here, and the gratitude that feeds future generations to be inspired in their own traditional innovations.

We ran some numbers and found out some interesting insights. The program we created ended up costing in the ballpark of $15,000. This is a lot of money and sure sounds like a lot of money. But let’s put that into perspective. We realized that the way we have chosen to go about this process has been extremely cost effective. Had we purchased these types of handmade banjos for the 15 participants, the cost with shipping would have actually been comparable. We could have paid another person this money, gotten our banjos and started playing. Instead, we invested that money in teachers, food and catering, materials and supplies so that we could create a whole body, mind and spirit experience of learning and growing together. These banjo crafters now hold information in their DNA that can be passed on and shared in the Black communities we love and cherish. For the same price as outsourcing banjos, we were able to spend three days creating family and building community with people who are extremely driven to connect with their own roots and uplift ourselves while eating healthy nourishing food and being in an intergenerational space with everyone from babies to elders.

Each and every time we create these spaces, we are changing the conditions for Black people to thrive. Music is not just for entertainment; it’s what sustains us. By sourcing materials locally and growing them sustainably in our local communities, we contribute to a healthier world where the things we need to live are available to us by our own hands, through our own deeds and through our own commitment to self and community support.

A profound thank you to the IBMA Foundation and the Pisgah Banjo Company, two organizations that have worked with us to support this project happening, as well as the Black Banjo Reclamation Community Support Team, made up of volunteers who have been assisting with fundraising for the 2022 projects. We want to recognize the role you play in supporting these truly amazing experiences happening. This will have a profound effect on our futures and the ways we are shaping our world together.

Thank you to our hosts, The Mitchell Family, and Ayula, for making amazing plant-based food for 20 people over the course of three days. Thank you to Sule Greg Wilson and Yemanya for being our elders in community and being our teachers of African-rooted culture as well as banjo building and playing. Thank you to Leon Amre Dana for bringing the wood to our sacred fire that he cut and climbed with his own hands; gratitude for you bringing your knowledge, teaching and answering many questions. Thank you Red for constructing the tables for our work and for all the emotional and logistical support you provide constantly. Thank you to Warren, Mae, Traver, Charlie and Patrice for coming all the way from the Bay and for being amazing farmers and banjo builders; the Melanin Day School of Sacramento and all the families involved; Nia, Clif, Oya, Nakia and Reuben for bringing the DMV flavor of the diaspora out West; Jaque Pawnee and Taylor for bringing the energy of the youth and reminding us to expand our language access and communication skills; and Anita and Patricia for being present as amazing women sharing your art and wisdom. Thank you all for sharing your voices and song.

You all have made such a difference in this project and in our world. Can’t wait for what we create from here! Sending everyone so much gratitude for the ways you are contributing to Black Futures and the Black Banjo Reclamation Project!

Note: Donations to the Arnold Shultz Fund by the Pisgah Banjo Company and Lee Zapis have helped to fund two BBRP banjo building camps. Deering Banjos has also provided bluegrass-style Goodtime Banjos at a discounted rate for the previous BBRP banjo camp held in January 2022.

Photo above: Participants in the April 2022 Banjo Build in Sacramento, CA create their own banjos from gourds grown by the Black Banjo Reclamation Project.

RETURN to the July 1, 2022 issue of The Cornerstone.