Posted by Oteil Burbridge My Banjo Journey

My wife Jess started playing banjo before I did. When she was away working in Africa for a year, I started messing around with it. I’ve loved bluegrass music since I met Col. Bruce Hampton in the late 80’s and in ’88 I actually lived with banjoist Jeff Mosier. He tried to get me into it back then, (I was 24) but I was too intimidated by the tuning and putting finger picks on. I felt like being on Mars. He was the first one to inform me that the banjo comes from Africa. I never would have thought. 22 years later I finally took his advice.

Oteil at 24 playing banjo at Jeff Mosier's house

 I learned my original bluegrass rolls watching YouTubes, then I got a couple of Tony Trischka instructional videos. Later, thanks to my buddy David Wolff, I actually got to meet Tony, take lessons from him, and record with him. As I started to delve more deeply into the instrument I was turned on to Bela Fleck’s documentary called Throw Down Your Heart, about the African Roots of the banjo. It was instrumental in the formation of my personal approach. Since I was already familiar with various kinds of African music and rhythms it makes me curious about trying to approach banjo in that way. I also saw a documentary on PBS (which you can watch in it’s entirety on their website) called Give Me The Banjo. Its a fascinating history of the banjo’s migration to this country and it’s subsequent evolution. Turns out Tony Trischka was the musical consultant for the show.

Tony Trischka, David Wolff and Oteil at the Beacon Theater in NYC

I was thrilled to learn that there were black banjo players from North Carolina like Odell Thompson and Dink Roberts, that actually played mountain music! And that their tradition continues till this very day with musicians like the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Dom Flemons, who sings, plays banjo and other instruments with the Chocolate Drops was a help to me in my journey through this tradition. He gave me a bunch of CD’s of the old black string bands. These players play a style that is today called “claw hammer’. It is precisely the same technique still used to this day in Africa by Akonting and Guembri/Sintir players. No finger picks are used and it definitely incorporates more of a hammering motion on the downstroke rather than picking, to play the melody. See below:

That is the reason that I call my style of banjo AfroBilly:

I use the three finger picking style commonly found in bluegrass music. Although claw hammer is still used in Bluegrass since the popularization of the fingerpicking style, it’s what you see most of the time. Even though I want to use African rhythms and concepts I still love the sound of the finger picks. that’s where the “Billy” part comes from.

Oteil playing banjo in the Virunga Massif in east Africa

 Another fascinating fact that I discovered was that my grandfather on my mother’s side was from Durham, NC, ground zero for the black banjo tradition. Am I merely yet another salmon returning to my source? Looks that way folks! I can’t describe for you the peace and joy that it brings me. It’s a little piece of magic.

Oteil playing the bass banjo