String Theory

The mandolin and violin share some interesting intersections.

From the cave paintings at Three Brothers Cave in France came evidence of the proto-proto-mandolin, a crude lute-like instrument with one string. Or perhaps this cave drawing, which depicts a hunting bow converted to a musical instrument, represents the great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother of what we know as the violin.

MusicalBow

An Obu man playing a musical bow in Nigeria, circa 1909-1913.

These two seemingly different instruments share the same tuning – G, D, A, E – so a violin player could switch to mandolin and crank out the same Bach sonatas. Likewise, a mandolin player could heft a violin under her chin and spool out “Rickett’s Reel,” transmuting said instrument from violin to fiddle.

As humans traveled, pillaged and collided culturally, their instruments ended up in new hands to be played around new fires with new types of fermented beverages. Thus, common roots stem from Middle Eastern instruments influencing European instrument makers, as both the mandolin and violin chart back to Arabic origins. (The mandolin traces to the “oud” and the violin to the “rabab.”)

oud-rebab collage

An oud (left) and a rabab (right).

The two share a notable historic turn in Italy albeit 100 years apart. In the 1500s in northern Italy, an instrument evolved from the design of the viola di braccio, and an instrument maker named Andrea Amati of Cremora landed on record as the first known creator of the modern violin in 1555. The oldest surviving violin dates to 1560 and belongs to Amati. The most well-known Italian violin maker, Antonio Stradivari, apprenticed with Amati’s grandson. Stradivari set the standard for the violin in the late 1600s and early 1700s, at the time when the Latin mandora, part of the lute family, entered the stream of Italian life.

The Italians invented a smaller version of the mandora, called it the mandolina, and by the 1800s, the mandolin enjoyed a happy, abundant life in Italian music. During the great immigration of the late 1800s to America, Italians packed their mandolins and introduced this delightful little instrument to the New World.

gibson mandolin family

The Gibson Mandolin Family at the National Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota.

In 1898, an American luthier named Orville Gibson won a patent for an arch-top design on the traditional bowl-backed Italian mandolin. The American mandolin was born. Gibson instruments became a household name. Gibson’s iconic mandolin design continues to symbolize American folk music to this day.

The roads converged for the violin and mandolin in the United States, where the Italians had created a great mandolin fever in the 1900s. Violins in the guise of fiddles partnered with mandolins, banjos, guitars and upright basses to codify a particular type of Americana music that exploded in the 1930s once commercial radio became a fact of life. Bill Monroe, a mandolin virtuoso, created a new style of finger picking based on the frenetic fiddle techniques of Uncle Pen Vandiver. Monroe added “blue” notes and phrasing from a bluesman mentor named Arnold Schultz, named his band The Blue Grass Boys, and invented bluegrass music.

Several generations later, another mandolin virtuoso who creates celestial interpretations of violin music on his mandolin, Chris Thile, borrowed from Monroe’s tradition of lightning-fast finger picking with his breakout band, Nickle Creek. Now the inheritor of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion, which he is refashioning to exhibit outstanding, burgeoning musical talent, Thile stands as possibly the greatest mandolin player in the world.

From humble and possibly apocryphal beginnings on a cave wall in France to stages here at The Straz, the convergence of the mandolin and the fiddle presents an intriguing intertwining of the lives of two fascinating instruments that found a common home in bluegrass bands – not a bad twist of fate for our four-noted friends.

 

We have an exceptional selection of great string-fueled performances this fall. For our other exciting musical acts, visit strazcenter.org.

Colter Wall – Fri., Nov. 17

Lindsey Stirling’s Warmer in the Winter Tour – Fri., Nov. 24

Ben Haggard – Fri., Dec. 15

The Grahams – Mon., Dec. 18

Call Me Xalam, Banjar, Strum Strum or Merrywang

The story of America’s instrument

ngoni-halam-xalam-01

Xalam, or khalam, is the Wolof name for traditional stringed instruments from West Africa. (Photo: http://www.instrumundo.blogspot.com)

The meek and pluck-twangy sidekick to guitar and fiddle didn’t get its propers before Deliverance ruined an entire generation on banjo music and canoe trips to rural Georgia. The lone ambassador of a spectacular and truly (colonial) American history, the banjo is considered by folk musicologists to be the only original American folk instrument. The guitar and violin already existed in their current forms as did Celtic drums, piano and upright (a.k.a. “double”) bass. But the banjo . . . what’s up with that?

Known to Europeans as a banjar, bangie, banshaw, strum strum or merrywang, the banjo originated in the Gambia region of Senegal and traveled with enslaved Africans to the Caribbean, eventually inching north to the Southern plantations of America when enslaved people built their home instruments from local resources—gourds and animals.

An animal hide stretched over a gourd with three or four gut strings, this instrument, called a xalam in Africa, stayed among the enslaved, buoying their spirits and keeping them musically connected to their homeland and to each other, giving them an outlet for personal expression and propping up their dancing in the absence of traditional drums. (Interesting side note: when slavers took the Africans’ drums away out of fear of rebellion, the enslaved took up a practice called “pattin’ juba,” using their hands and feet for intricate clapping and stamping to hold the polyrhythms.)

Known to be some of the most gifted musicians in the new world, Africans often played for white communities, introducing them to polyrhythmic music and advanced singing techniques. So, the xalam’s American “banjar” form morphed in the 1800s when white folks fell in love with its sound and capabilities. Although “merrywang,” sadly, didn’t catch on as a popular name, it’s easy to see the short linguistic jump from “banjar” or “bangie” to “banjo.”

Thus, the banjo made a rather rickety bridge—but a bridge nonetheless!—across cultures, with this ungainly instrument as an unlikely taproot for diverse American folkways. The Africans trained others in their traditional “down-picking” style, which formed the basis for how to play American banjo. Anglos restructured the gourd design to a wood frame and added metal strings. Somewhere along the line the all-American fifth “drone” string appeared on this frame design with the frame itself shifting from wood to metal. Early historians credited this addition to Joel Sweeny of North Carolina though more recent study casts that claim into doubt, as longtime banjo maker Jim Hartel notes that African designs of xalams or calabash-style African banjos already included a short string similar to the drone. So, we’re not 100% sure how the string appeared, just that it did when the banjo diffused across the race line to be an instrument for everybody. That addition, however, made the contemporary banjo a uniquely American folk instrument—a circular monument to successful cross-pollination of cultural traditions (it’s unfortunate minstrelsy period notwithstanding).

Banjo maker Jim Hartel and Carolina Chocolate Drops frontwoman and ethnomusicologist Rhiannon Giddens give context and history of the minstrel banjo:

With the new sounds emanating from the open-backed, round body and metal strings, what we now recognize as “frailing” or the “claw-hammer” technique mastered by such banjo superstars as Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs evolved from the down-picking style. Banjo players today pull from both techniques, as evidenced by Newgrass legend Bela Fleck and incredible, Louisiana-based roots-musician Cedric Watson.

All hail the merrywang, a singular sound of our complex and important cultural roots.