“What happens when an already good musician decides to broaden his horizons by learning more about the roots of the banjo and learns some tunes and songs from Gambia in the process? A CD as interesting and enjoyable as this one. (And how did he ever get Roz Chast of the New Yorker to draw the cover?)
Chuck Levy has played banjo and fiddle for many years. When you have played a while, you can find yourself, as you get deeper and deeper into the music, playing more and more rests, and fewer and fewer notes until you‘ve got the tune down to some Platonic essence. Levy does this with familiar old-time tunes such as “Rock the Cradle, Joe”, “Cindy” and “Chinese Breakdown”. A particular gem was “Sandy Boys,” which in my mind is a tune that is overdone and over-recorded. Not here. It is a beautiful fiddle-banjo duet. (Dave Forbes plays clear, precise fiddle on all the fiddle-banjo duets.) What’s more, Levy is playing a six-string banjo with a low A string, so that without going above the fifth fret, he can play the full tune in two octaves, going low when the fiddle goes low, and high when the fiddle is high.
On his website (www.banjourneys.com) and his interview with Bela Fleck in the last issue of the OTH (Volume 12, Number 5), Levy discusses his interest in the African roots of the banjo, his trips to Gambia, and his development of a Western version of the akonting, “banjonting” – a three string instrument of levy’s own devising. OTH readers who own the Bob Carlin/Cheick Hamala Diabate collaboration From Mali to America (reviewed in Volume 11, Number 2 may be surprised how different Levy’s African songs and tunes sound: They are sung as well as played, they use a Western-sounding diatonic scale instead of microtones, and seem rhythmically more regular. On reflection, why should this be surprising? Mali and Gambia are at least 200 miles apart. Think of the differences between Georgia and Kentucky fiddling in the 1920’s. “African akonting music” is no more a monolith than “American banjo music”.
There are four songs form Gambia on Banjourneys, each one played on the banjonting with Mike Eberle doubling on fiddle while Levy sings and plays. Each one sounds as if it has a “simple” melody with repeated words. Making it sound easy is something that good musicians know how to do; a construction project seldom looks complex once the scaffolding has been taken down.
Levy is also fascinated with the low tones of the cello-banjo—as in “Doctor Levy’s Walk-Around,” an original minstrel-style tune, and the “Walk Into the Parlor” medley also done in the style of the 1850’s. he extends his fascination with the bass notes by playing a six-string banjo with an added low bass string, allowing the melody notes to be played an octave below the banjo’s normal range. (This has already been mentioned while praising “Sandy Boys” above.) In fact, the only cut on this CD done with a “standard” five-string banjo is Ola Belle Reed’s “Boat’s Up the River”. Two nice fiddle tunes, both done with two fiddles with Mike Eberle, and a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “No Expectations” round out this CD.
I think this CD is an opportunity to follow some of the roads taken by a fine traditional musician (in several widely different traditions) who has found his own balance between honoring tradition and creating new music. Many of these roads I would never have found myself, and I am glad Levy showed them to me.”
- Pete Peterson