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Future Folk: Black Banjo Reclamation Project

Written by on August 18, 2022

The Black Banjo Reclamation Project is a non-profit organization reclaiming music history and connecting kids to African tradition through building and playing banjos.

Led by Hannah Mayree, with help from co-teacher Sule Greg Wilson, the Black Banjo Reclamation Project hopes to reconnect people of African descent to the traditions of their ancestors and sow seeds for future mindful cultural development. The organization holds many fellowship events, like a camp where participants get to build their own banjo and are taught about its history while learning to play it.

A big part of the project’s philosophy is rooted in land conservation and stewardship. Every part of the banjo, from the gourd making up its body to the goatskin stretched across its surface, is from the Earth — unlike the modern banjo, which is much more artificial in its design.

“As the banjo was transformed more and more by Euro-American culture, they did as much as they could to make it look as mechanical and industrial as possible,” Wilson explained. “To separate it from its natural African roots.”

Hannah Mayree leads the Black Banjo Reclamation Project, teaching kids about the banjo and making the connection back to the instrument’s African roots.
Photo courtesy of Sulyiman Stokes

The banjo’s African originators were also in a culture much more connected to their land than we are today, so Mayree and Wilson are trying to tap into this mindset as well. 

“I want people to use music as a way of truly facing and healing in a bigger and a deeper way than just enjoying that something sounds good, ‘cause that’s extractive,” Mayree said.

In part two of our “Future Folk” series in partnership with the Old Town School of Folk Music and Music Moves Chicago, Vocalo storytelling and community engagement producer Ari Mejia speaks with Hannah Mayree and Sule Greg Wilson about the traditions behind the organization, the transformation of the banjo and why its reclamation is important in terms of connection to cultural heritage.

Sule Greg Wilson is a banjo expert and co-teacher at Black Banjo Reclamation Project.
Photo courtesy of Sulyiman Stokes.

Ari Mejia: In this segment, I have the honor and the pleasure of sitting down with Hannah Mayree and Sule Greg Wilson, both part of the Black Banjo Reclamation Project, leading a summer camp that’s part of the Music Moves and Old Town School of Folk Music collaboration. The Black Banjo Reclamation Project is a vehicle to return instruments of African origin to the descendants of their original makers. Here’s Hannah and Sule, going deep about the project and the camp.

Hannah Mayree: What is reclaiming banjo? It’s something that is a sentiment. It’s something that is a need. We’re in this space sort of as teachers and learners and transmitters of vibes and information and vibrations intergenerationally, through this program that we’re doing here today. My name is Hannah Mayree, and I’m part of the Black Banjo Reclamation Project.

Sule Greg Wilson: My name is Sule Greg Wilson. I help her out to make the Banjo Reclamation Project’s dreams come true. I help people remember their heritage — energetically, musically, physically. And one of the ways we do that is through talking about the history of the banjo, letting people touch the instrument, letting people go through the process of creating their own instrument and finding the joy.

SW: Black Banjo Reclamation Project calls for everyone, no matter what your community — and especially if you’re in the United States, or any part that has been touched by Africa or its diaspora — to recognize the historical circumstances that we have come through that have resulted in who we are now.

HM: Centering the land and centering Black people in the process of our cultural inheritance, and the things that are empowering to us, the relationships that liberate us, acknowledging that we have to create that space in the world. We’re doing that through banjo today.

With the banjo, it is an instrument that came from a lot of different instruments all over the continent, which have all been created in really similar ways using gourds. And so many cultures around the world use gourds for music and for practical and spiritual reasons.

SW: The way we have it structured is so that some people are working on practicing playing while other people are going through the process of creation.

Typical day is, people come in, we greet, we come together, we talk about what we’re going to do… First we had to choose our gourds, then we had to cut our gourds, then we had to clean our gourds. Well, actually, we had to wash ‘em, then we had to cut ‘em, and — no, score ‘em, and then cut ‘em, then clean ‘em, and bless ‘em.

HM: They were always handmade instruments, and so we are wanting to bring back the spirit of what has gone into these instruments, from the multiple generations, the thousands of generations that have been inside of this practice.

SW: Most people are familiar with banjo, probably a Gibson Mastertone or something like that if they saw Earl Scruggs, or they saw… Beverly Hillbillies, or Béla Fleck or anything. It’s this big, metal… not monstrosity, but mechanization. As the banjo was transformed more and more by Euro-American culture, they did as much as they could to make it look as mechanical and industrial as possible, to separate it from its natural African roots.

Traditional banjos are made up of gourds, goat skin and wood. The Black Banjo Reclamation Project teaches kids about the banjo in its traditional context — a nature-connected, handmade instrument.
Photo courtesy of Sulyiman Stokes

HM: When you see a banjo, there’s a lot of different things that, through the media, through propaganda, through different aspects of, really, having to do with white supremacy, the banjo has been co-opted and adapted to cultures outside of the original one that it came from. And so, that’s really what’s behind the truth of it, is looking at, “What is the actual practice of Black people and African people when we are relating to this through the diaspora here on Turtle Island, as well as how are we making that connection back to where we come from?” This instrument comes from our relationship with the earth and stewarding, and everything from the goat skin, that’s a relationship with the land and the animals, the gourd, the wood.

SW: If anybody gets interested in the banjo, you’re going to read some history, and the history is gonna say, “Black people used to play the banjo, but they got embarrassed about minstrelsy so they stopped playing the banjo.” That’s — that is not the truth of it.

HM: If we’re coming from a tradition that has only taken, not acknowledged, benefited from and continued to oppress Black people, that’s not a tradition that should exist. That tradition isn’t making the world a better place. I want people to use music as a way of truly facing and healing in a bigger and a deeper way than just, oh, enjoying that something sounds good, because that’s extractive.

SW: There is such magic in putting this instrument in people’s hands, and giving them a song, a way into a song that links back generations upon generations upon generations.

The goal of Black Banjo Reclamation Project is to not only teach kids about an instrument in relation to their African ancestors, but to connect them with the earth and nature in an urban environment.
Courtesy of Sulyiman Stokes.

HM: We recognize how special and unique it is that we’re doing it from this perspective. And it’s kind of a one-of-a-kind thing that we are continuing to grow so that it can exist in many, many forms and is available to people.

SW: I play the banjo because I saw it as an antenna or a funnel to my own ancestors. And so when I do this work, sharing it with other people, I’m turning that funnel back the other way.

HM: People are already steeped in their own culture. We don’t need to teach them who they are, by any means. But this is just another resource that is a little more marginal, it’s not part of even the mainstream, like musical curriculum. Focusing on folk and earth based traditions is kind of like what we do. And so we’re really happy to bring that in an urban environment, where we’re making the connection between urban and rural and acknowledging… we’re still on stolen land, we’re still on land. We’re still on sacred land, wherever we are, and bringing that into the space that we hold.

Visit the Black Banjo Reclamation Project’s website and follow them on Instagram to learn more.

Interview and audio production by Ari Mejia

Introduction written by Morgan Ciocca and George Chiligiris

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