July 31, 2013
The banjo conjures American musical icons: the overall-clad country band on an old porch, the bluegrass player in a sun-soaked field. Over the past century, famous players like Pete and Mike Seeger have established the instrument as an enduring piece of Americana.
Despite the banjo’s firm place in the American folk cannon, though, ethnomusicologist Greg C. Adams wants music fans to appreciate the eclectic, global contexts from which American banjo music grew. Since the instruments’ invention by enslaved Africans in the Caribbean nearly 400 years ago, the banjo has been picked up by a variety of cultures in and outside the Americas, each of which has contributed to the different ways America’s great banjoists have played.
For Classic Banjo, out this month on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, Adams and archivist Jeff Place selected 30 of the past half-century’s best tracks by American banjo players that capture the diversity of American techniques and styles.
Adams, who has played the banjo for almost 20 years, recently talked to us about his love of the instrument, its history and what Classic Banjo means for a new generation of banjo enthusiasts.
Why make an album of American banjo classics?
Smithsonian Folkways is home to some of the most important recordings that reflect the ways the banjo is being used, especially in the 20th century. To have access to those materials, and to make those materials available, is vitally important to the ways in which we think about the broader history of the banjo. By the 1890s and moving forward, the banjo is increasingly used in the music industry. But how do we take what’s happened in the past century and compare it to how we understand the banjo’s broader history, which is a nearly 400-year history? How do we reflect upon the first 300 years of that history and embrace what we can learn from the 20th century forward? That’s why we put this album together.
What makes a good banjo track?
It’s a mix of the energy behind the performance, learning about the contexts of the performance and then learning who these people are and why they are significant. On the album, Tony Trischka and Bill Evans play the tune “Banjoland” with incredible precision. But you can also listen to “Golden Bell Polka,” by A.L. Camp, who at the time of this recording was a very old man. He’s playing this tune that would be associated with the late 19th and early 20th century, and so while you can tell he’s of an older generation by his performance, there’s still an integrity in his playing that says: ‘Yes, this man knew exactly what he was doing and in his day was an incredible player.’ It’s about appreciating not only the processes people go through as they learn to play the instrument, but how this process ties into the broader banjo tradition.
You had more than 300 albums to dig through in your search. How did you decide which tracks ultimately made the final cut?
We looked at several things. Who are some of the individuals that would need to be represented? What are some of the specific playing techniques that would need to be there? What kind of repertoire would help to reflect the vibrant nature of banjo music traditions? We have iconic people like Pete Seeger, Hobart Smith, or Mike Seeger, and we focus on playing techniques that are associated with, for example, bluegrass traditions, or with old time music—whether you’re talking about downstroke techniques such as clawhammer or frailing, as well as two- and three-finger picking styles. And then there are also people who are not picking the strings with their fingers, but using flat pics or plectrums.
How did these different techniques come about?
Different techniques materialize in different ways. In the 19th century, downstroke techniques were associated with the banjo’s commercialization through black-face minstrelsy and instruction books that taught African American techniques. This way of playing the banjo shares the same fundamentals with what we see in old time music circles, so if you see somebody playing clawhammer banjo—they would also call it frailing the banjo or thumping the banjo—you have a fundamental technique that unfolds in different ways, within different geographic locations, within different communities. Nobody’s going to play the banjo in the exact same way.
Banjo is increasingly prevalent in popular radio music, like songs by the band Mumford and Sons. What do you hope a young generation of banjo enthusiasts take away from this record?
What listeners are hearing people do today ties back to traditions that are hundreds of years old. It’s part of a much larger continuum. What they’re hearing in popular music, and perhaps what they’ll hear on a recording such as Classic Banjo, will inspire them to look deeper beyond just the sound of the instrument to the multicultural contexts in which the banjo exists. My hope is that we can reach as wide a public as possible.
What’s the benefit of the banjo’s growing popularity?
I feel like with the latest wave of popular awareness, we have a unique opportunity to really deconstruct the banjo’s use over time, coming out of slavery, its popular use though black-face minstrelsy, the way that it’s being gradually commercialized and what brings us to associate it more recently with old time and blue grass traditions. There’s a chance to have more of a conversation about the deeper aspects of this history. The banjo is not just a stereotype anymore. It is a gateway to understanding the American experience.
July 2, 2013
For centuries, villagers in northern Ecuador celebrated weddings, harvests and other special occasions with songs played on flutes made from a bamboolike plant known as carrizo. Globalization and a cholera outbreak in the 1990s that killed many local people, flutists included, nearly stopped the music, but not in the town of Otavalo, where master flutists founded the Hatun Kotama Flute School so they could pass on their musical legacy.
¡Así Kotama!: The Flutes of Otavalo, Ecuador, out now on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, showcases 36 performances by the school’s teachers and students. The musicians sing, stomp, blow cow horns and play a variety of other local instruments to create music that is rhythmic and cyclical, anchored by steady beats and call-and-response vocals as the flutes spin dissonant melodies.
LISTEN: Kotama Path
“The stomping and the whistles and the chanting and all that stuff is meant to express they’re strong and that they have this big presence,” explains co-producer Jessie Vallejo, a PhD candidate in ethnomusicology, who discovered the flutes while she was living in Otavalo to study the local Kichwa language. The music conveys a philosophy as well: its players use their instruments to practice ranti-ranti, the everlasting chain of giving and receiving, which promotes cooperation and understanding.
“This is a grass roots example of a community recognizing a need,” Vallejo says. “Some people think the flute tradition is dying. But the Otavalo school is creating a very strong hub that will hopefully have an influence in other places. It is showing the tradition is relevant to today’s life.”
As part of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the group will be in town for free performances and workshops.
- July 3rd, 2:00 pm – Kichwa Music and Dance Workshop
- July 4th, 1:15 pm – Kichwa Music and Dance Workshop
- July 5th, 11:45 am – Kichwa Music and Dance Workshop
- July 5th, 6:00 pm – Evening Concert - Kennedy Center Millennium Stage
- July 6th, 12:30 pm – Kichwa Music and Dance Workshop
- July 6th, 6:00 pm – Evening Concert - Voices of the World Stage
- July 7th, 2:00 pm – Kichwa Music and Dance Workshop
June 28, 2013
In 1846, shortly after the daguerreotype, the earliest first photographic process, made its way from Europe to the United States, Walt Whitman visited a picture studio and declared photography a fundamentally democratic art. “You will see more life there—more variety, more human nature, more artistic beauty . . . than in any spot we know,” he wrote.
To honor Whitman’s vision, as well as to celebrate the 30th anniversary of a photography collection that has grown to approximately 7,000 images, the American Art Museum opened “A Democracy of Images: Photographs from the Smithsonian American Art Museum,” an exhibition of 113 photos that showcases photography’s central and evolving role in American culture from Whitman’s time to the present.
“If democracy is about creating equal access to information, photography is a very basic form of communication,” says Merry Foresta, the exhibition’s curator. “It goes two ways: It’s about access to the ability to take photographs, but it’s also access to being able to see many pictures, and to have many pictures to see. Photography captures the democratic idea of sharing and equalization.”
The exhibition’s four themed sections– “American Characters,” “Spiritual Frontier,” “America Inhabited” and “Imagination at Work”–show photography’s development as an art form in America, from a basic tool for family portraiture to a means of abstract expression. As American photographers became more self-aware and experimental in the medium, they pressed photography’s boundaries to capture the country’s shifting urban and natural landscapes, and ultimately learned to manipulate conventional photographic methods to produce complex layered or distorted images that not only reveal American places and identities, but challenge them.
For those who love photography, Foresta believes the exhibition, which runs through January 5, 2014, offers a concise look at the art form’s hand in shaping the American experience in a period of rapid cultural and technological change. For those unfamiliar with photography’s history, she says, “If the exhibition does nothing more than put a question mark in their head and make them look again at a picture, that’s terrific.”
To learn more about American photography, check out the exhibition’s website, which includes the photos on display along with a timeline of events in the history of photography, a glossary of photographic terms and access to other pictures in the museum’s permanent collection.
June 21, 2013
Tony Hawk and Rodney Mullen are skateboarding giants. Both turned pro in their early teens more than 30 years ago, and spent the 1980s and 1990s pioneering modern skating’s two most prevalent styles: Hawk, “the Birdman,” took to the skies to invent many of the sport’s iconic gravity-defying aerials, including the 900; Mullen, “the Godfather of Street Skating,” hit the pavement to make up flips, grinds and balancing maneuvers that don’t seem humanly possible even after you’ve watched them.
Combined, the two have come up with close to 100 tricks.
The pair will be at the National Museum of American History this weekend for Innoskate, a public festival that celebrates skateboarding’s culture of innovation, from tricks to skateboard design to skate shoes and fashion. After Hawk donates his very first skateboard to the museum’s collection on Saturday, he will sit down with Mullen for a panel discussion specifically about trick innovation, during which the two legends will reflect on the challenges and rewards of imagining the big moves that launched their sport from a small, alternative subculture to a mainstream sensation.
In anticipation of this discussion, we asked Hawk and Mullen separately what it takes to invent a killer skateboard trick. Here are the four golden rules we took away from their responses:
1. Respect the Past
“When I came up with most of my tricks, it wasn’t like I was trying to figure out the next move that was impossibly difficult and had never been tried on any level.,” Hawk says. “A lot of the things I’ve created, especially throughout the ’80s, combined existing tricks.”
He invented his first trick, the backside varial, at about age 12. The trick wasn’t earth-shattering, but it was new, and gave Hawk an original move to begin to establish his credibility at such a young age.
“For me, skating wasn’t always about the chase of being the inventor,” he says. “I just wanted to keep improving my skills, and if I could take inspiration from others to do that, I was happy to.”
Mullen had a similar experience in creating one of his most significant early-career tricks, the casper. The move was a slight alteration of what was already known as the 50-50 casper, in which the skater flips the board upside down and balances it with only the tail touching the ground.
“In many ways, that move opened up so many variations,” he says. “But at the time, it was a very, very simple variation itself of what already existed—so much so that it just dropped the 50-50 and used the same name.
“Everything is a variation of a variation, to some degree” he adds. “You can’t expect to come up with something and say, ‘that’s entirely new.’ ”
2. Stay Simple
Great tricks don’t need to be complicated, Hawk and Mullen agree. Instead, the best tricks combine technical proficiency with an element of grace—a certain harmony of imagination and function.
Hawk says that many of his tricks have been “born out of necessity,” the accidental result of trying to accomplish one move and realizing there was a different way to approach things. He came up with the backside varial, for instance, because he was bad at frontside rotations.
“Sometimes I would be trying to learn something that had already been created and my board would keep getting away from me or I felt like I was turning too far, and I’d think, oh, maybe I could do something new here,” he says.
Mullen jokes that “the greatest skaters are the laziest skaters.” For a lot of the tricks he has invented, he says, “my line of reasoning has been it’s going to be 10 percent harder, 20 percent harder, 30 percent harder to do at first, so it costs more upfront to get there, but in the end, if I can count on it more, then it will be easier. That is what has driven a lot of my thinking in terms of what got me to do things a little differently.”
3. Keep an Open Mind
“Usually skaters are stubborn, because they don’t like to be defeated, but that’s something you really have to let go of sometimes,” Mullen says. “If you approach a hard new trick with a mindset of ‘I’m going to overcome this, just turn on the camera,’ you’re probably not going to hit the trick because it’s going to be an uphill battle. Put away the camera and say, ‘I’m just going to tinker with this. I’m a little bit at sea, and I’m going to go with the tides and see where they take me.’ ”
And letting go doesn’t mean settling for anything less. “Open your mind to doing something even harder, too,” he says. “If your environment spins you in a certain direction or gives you a certain torque that works against you in one way, it may work for you in another. Even if a trick is 20 percent harder, if it flows better with the environment you’re skating in, it might actually be easier to do. So just go with it. Play with it. Maybe you won’t get what were dreaming of, but you might be able to get something better.”
Hawk likes to go back to the basics whenever he hits a rough patch.
“I would do tricks that felt good but weren’t necessarily as hard, and tinker with them,” he says. “With grinds, for example, I would think, all right, what’s the limit of these types of grinds? What can we do with them, instead of trying to figure out the next super crazy flip spin. I created a lot tricks by going back to the drawing board, because people don’t always think in those terms.”
4. Be Authentic
“I can do the exact same trick somebody else does and it will look completely different, because I have my own my own flair,” Hawk says. “Skating is about sharing ideas, but at the same time making it your own. It is equally creative as it is athletic, as much an art form as it is a sport.”
“Authenticity is everything in the community,” Mullen agrees, and adds that skateboarding culture is unique in its lack of metrics to define what is good skating and bad skating, proper and improper form; rather than conforming to standards, individuals contribute to the community by developing their own style.
“Be yourself,” he says. “If you have this kind of spastic way of doing something, even if it looks goofy, the fact is that it can look cool, because it’s you. Go with that. Be different. Don’t just try be different and concoct it, because you’re going to be sniffed out.”
“Do what you love, even if it’s not established,” says Hawk. “And keep doing it, because you might be the pioneer of a whole movement.”
June 18, 2013
Stoy Popovich never has ridden a kayak before, but that isn’t stopping him from building one.
As the National Museum of Natural History’s exhibit specialist, he creates displays and builds objects needed for the museum’s exhibitions, and when he learned the museum wanted a model of a traditional kayak used by Native hunters in Greenland, he jumped at the opportunity to piece one together.
“The project excited me because it was something new, something I’ve never done before,” he says.
The museum plans to suspend the completed kayak alongside Phoenix, its iconic model of a right whale for the reopening of “Living on an Ocean Planet,” an exhibition in the museum’s Ocean Hall about humanity’s evolving relationship with the world’s oceans. Greenland’s Inuit populations have built kayaks for thousands of years because their sleek, stealthy design makes them ideal for sneaking up on prey like seals, walruses and whales while navigating mazes of icy water.
While today the boats are most commonly used for recreation and competitions, some communities in northern Greenland continue to rely on them for hunting. Unlike popular plastic and synthetic models, Greenland’s traditional kayaks are made of a skeletal wooden frame lashed together with seal sinew and covered in sealskin. These materials make the boats light and pliable, so they are easy to cart around and capable of withstanding blows in tumultuous seas.
Popovich began the project in the winter by poking around online for instructional videos and booklets about traditional kayak building. He also consulted with Maligiaq Padilla, a Greenland National Kayaking Champion who made and donated a kayak to Smithsonian in 2005 (exhibiting the kayak is problematic because it is susceptible to fluctuations in humidity).
With limited funds for the project, Popovich got creative, scavenging supplies from around his shop. For the frame, he found sheets of ash, a highly malleable wood; to tie everything together, he dug up some high tension string. He has yet to choose a fabric for the kayak’s exterior (sealskin wouldn’t be an option even if it were lying around the museum because of ethical concerns).
The materials may not be authentic, but the process certainly is. Northern Greenland doesn’t have too many trees, Popovich points out, so Native hunters spent centuries before global commerce building their kayaks from whatever wood washed ashore around their homes—usually conifers like cedar, which is harder to mold than ash but lighter and more durable.
“We’re following that tradition,” Popovich says. “This has been a grassroots, pick-myself-up-by-my-bootstraps, how-the-heck-do-I-do-this kind of endeavor.”
While an experienced builder would need less than a week to make a kayak, he has taken his time, working around other projects and making sure everything is done correctly. “Every step I stop and think, okay, what’s the best way to get through this?” he says.
So far, he has nearly completed the frame by setting the keel (the straight wooden piece that runs along the kayak’s underside), soaking and molding the ribs, shaping the gunnels (the uppermost side pieces) and lashing everything together with the high tension string. The frame is customized to Popovich’s own dimensions, as practiced in the Arctic to ensure a tight seal around the opening in the kayak to fit the person’s body to keep from water coming in and to ensure optimal control.
“These things are made by the person who’s going to be paddling it, because when you’re in it, you actually become part of the kayak. Your legs and your body work with the kayak to maneuver it,” he explains.
His next major step will be “skinning” it with whichever material he chooses.
William Fitzhugh, director of the museum’s Arctic Studies Center, says the kayak will contribute to an increased anthropological focus in “Living on an Ocean Planet,” where it will be on display with a full-scale mannequin riding it. The exhibition will emphasize how connected we are to the oceans, and how greatly we can effect them with pollution and over-fishing.
“The kayak is the perfect representation of sophisticated technology developed by people who lived in a very harsh environment. They developed a craft that would be suitable for sustaining their cultures over thousands of years,” Fitzhugh says. “It’s a very small, fragile thing, but it’s very adaptable. It was one of the most ingenious watercraft ever developed anywhere in the world.”
Popovich, who considers himself a wood specialist, has been building things for the Smithsonian in different jobs for more than 25 years. He still gets a deep satisfaction out of completing projects even after all this time, and couldn’t hide a grin as he moved the kayak around the shop for photographs. “When it’s finished, it will be a beautiful thing,” he says.