Saturday, July 13, 2013

Intersecting Interests: The Banjo and Things Asian

I started fooling around with the banjo in the 1960s, as a junior high school student in Brooklyn, New York.  I was lucky enough to get an old, beat up a long neck banjo -- a Baker Belmont -- as a graduation gift from my parents.  In retrospect, the banjo was not necessarily as wise a choice as trying out for the football team in terms of striking on a formula for becoming popular.

After college, I spent 30 years in working Southeast Asian defense and security issues for the CIA and the Department of Defense.  We lived in Bangkok, Thailand, in the mid-1980s.  During the period from 1988 to 2008, I travelled in and out of Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, 5 or 6 times a year for work. 

My two interests –Asia, and banjo – intersected more than I ever thought they would. 

In my spare time while in the region, I’d hunt down local musicians, players of indigenous instruments as well as those more inclined to Western string instrument influences. 

I amassed a collection of Thai, Vietnamese and Cambodian stringed instruments that were, in their way, banjo-like. 

During my visits to Hanoi, I would spend spare time in various music stores, talking to local builders.  Those were really rudimentary workshops, dirt floors, hand made carving knives, salvaged wood and metal – in the late 1980s I once saw some locally built guitars whose strings, I swear, looked as though they were made from the internal wiring systems salvaged from downed U.S. aircraft.  I once convinced a small musical instrument storeowner to attempt to build banjo necks from specs I offered.  The end product was an intriguing combination of ingenuity and confusion, a work in teak that twisted quickly over time, but that ended up being re-milled by me into some sweet little tailpieces for gut strung banjos. 

I was, for a variety of reasons, immersed in Vietnam wartime documents such as memoirs and policy records, in Vietnamese.  I was equally interested in the wartime records, and post-war English language histories, by both experts and veterans. 

In the course of 30 years of monitoring such publications, I managed to stumble across a bunch of references in post-war publications by U.S. veterans that described personal experiences in southern Vietnam, and occasionally spoke to rear area R and R between operations.  In some cases, I read references to pick-up bands of U.S. service personnel that deployed guitars and banjos and other American instruments hauled across the ocean by GIs sent to the war zone.  In one or two U.S.-published memoirs, I came across some photos of banjo players in rear area gatherings in and around Saigon, and secretly always hoped I’d stumble across a Gibson left behind after 1973 during my visits to southern Vietnam. 

At some point, during the heyday of BANJO-L, I made the acquaintance of Robert Stuart "Stu" Jamieson, who recorded Rufus Crisp and was actively involved in performing old time music until his death in 2006.  Jamieson was born in 1922 in Kansu, in the Tibetan-Chinese border country, to a missionary family.  We exchanged emails in Chinese, talked about my travels in China in the mid-1990s, and mused about the spirits that drove us to Sinic language and culture and, at the same time, to banjo-focused music.

As the Director for Southeast Asia in the Office of the Secretary of Defense during my last seven years in government, I had certain representational responsibilities including hosting “social” events for visiting delegations.  Vietnamese, Thai, Cambodians – and Asians in general – were curious about Americans and their family lives, and intrigued by American “culture.”  The banjo and old time music was a great party trick, a fine way of leveling the playing field, introducing a measure of informality into a “diplomatic” after-hours event, and getting visitors to talk about their own folk cultures.  Southeast Asians sing.  They sing at parties.  They sing to break the ice.  They sing to create camaraderie in all manner of gatherings.  They warmed immediately to chances to trade old time tunes for their own music. 

I recently stumbled across a small group of avid banjo practitioners in Asia, and we’ve tried to sustain connections and be mutually helpful.  I ship my issues of Banjo Newsletter to Guangzhou Province after I’ve read them.  I send used DVDs to these Asian friends, and rely on email and other internet-driven mechanisms to trade tunes and helpful practice hints.  I’ve managed to establish an arrangement whereby I get interesting Chinese-language books in return for banjo-focused media.  My Vietnamese friends know of, and remain curious about, my interest in archaic American tunes, and try to help me grasp some of the rich and historically complex traditions of indigenous music from their country.      

It’s like trading baseball cards with your “pen pals” – anyone remember what those were?

Anyway, southern Chinese refer to clawhammer as
抓奏,  Zhua Zou, meaning to Grab, Seize, Clutch, and to
Play Music.  

Sounds about right.

Play hard,


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