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New American Banjo Festival to be held in Western Mass this weekend

Aaron Jonah Lewis.
Nick Sinclair
Aaron Jonah Lewis.

On Saturday, Turners Falls, Massachusetts will host a festival dedicated to contemporary banjo playing.

The New American Banjo Festival isn’t just a celebration for enthusiasts of the banjo’s distinctive twang.

“New American Banjo speaks to an idea of exploration of new styles of banjo playing, or folks who are reinvigorating, and researching, and performing old styles of banjo playing that aren't necessarily in the popular domain at this point," said festival organizer Michael Nix. “It grew out of my association with an organization called the Banjo Gathering, which is a bunch of banjo researchers, musicians, players, builders, collectors, who gather mostly in the Washington D.C. area for a conference every year to explore the newest research in banjo history, banjo making techniques, banjo as a cultural icon, and newest musical uses for the banjo.”

That’s the kind of atmosphere Nix wants the festival to bring to New England, which established itself on the banjo map at the turn of the century.

“New England was a manufacturing center of quality high-end banjos," said Nix. "Boston, Groton, Connecticut, had a huge manufacturing base of high-end banjos. They're still sought after by collectors these days.”

Nix says despite the banjo’s old-timey associations, devotees of the instrument have never stopped innovating.

“What we thought of maybe 15 years ago as, oh, this is a country music instrument, or, you know, this is something that came out of hillbilly records from the 20s, is really being used in different new ways as people explore the color, timbre possibilities for the banjo in modern music,” Nix told WAMC.

He notes its prominence in Jane Campion’s Best Picture Oscar nominee “The Power of the Dog,” which stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Kirsten Dunst.

Warning: minor spoilers for “The Power of the Dog” ahead.

“In the pivotal scene, where Cumberbatch’s character was exerting his dominance over the female protagonist, he was doing it musically," said Nix. "She was playing the piano, and he was mirroring the exact same themes on his banjo, played fingerstyle.”

Detroit-based Aaron Jonah Lewis, known for that style of play, will headline the festival.

“Aaron is a person who has resurrected the playing of classic fingerstyle banjo that is banjo that's played fingerstyle rather than with the back of the hand, like clawhammer or folk style," said Nix. "Well, in those days, it was called guitar style, and it was heavily influenced by American ragtime music and by parlor music composition.”

Lewis’s 2020 record “Mozart Of The Banjo: The Joe Morley Project” explores the compositions of the British player known for his contributions to classic fingerstyle playing.

“Aaron bases his music on heavy-duty research and performs it in a highly entertaining style as if he were one of those banjo virtuosos from around the turn of the century, dressed in costume," explained Nix. "It's quite a marvelous thing to hear. So, it's almost like you're listening to a banjo through the old Edison horn.”

Beyond organizing the event, Nix is also performing at it.

“I will be playing my new seven-string banjo, an instrument that I've designed, both in solos and in a chamber music situation with Chris Devine, who plays violin, viola, mandolin, and guitar, and Joe Fitzpatrick, who is a percussionist, and we’ll be playing number of pieces from my New Classic Banjo Project,” he said.

Each installation of the New American Banjo Festival has a theme.

“This year, we're doing the classic fingerstyle banjo," said Nix. "Next year I'll be looking at women of banjo, and there are a number of women performers who play in in a number of different styles.”

The 2022 New American Banjo Festival takes place at the Shea Theater Art Center in Turners Falls, Massachusetts Saturday night.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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