Banjo music often conjures images and ideas that are uniquely rural and Southern—and not necessarily flattering. In some cases, they are associated with stereotypes of rusticated country folk or, worse, blackface minstrel shows.
But it’s just that troubling history that has spawned a musical healing and awakening movement in Orange County.
On Saturday, Sept. 14, Dr. Dena Jennings and her ImaniWorks Foundation will host a benefit concert bringing dozens of talented artists to Orange to perform, educate and heal.
Oftentimes, at banjo and fiddle camps, participants would play old-time songs that were “on the border” of being racist. The tunes were familiar favorites, but drilling down into the lyrics and the later verses revealed troubling truths. More and more, musicians started recognizing that while the music was good, they had to come to terms with its layered messages, Jennings explained.
“Sometimes, you might be the only person of color at a banjo or fiddle camp, hear a song and think, ‘That’s awful,’ but if you’re the only one there, it’s hard to say something,” she said. “Then you realize, the person next to you is human too and is sharing those same thoughts.”
Soon, Carolina Chocolate Drops band member Rhiannon Giddens, Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage archivist Greg Adams and other African-American string band musicians began doing presentations to music and culture groups about the modern challenges of performing archival music.
“We don’t want to tell people what’s right or wrong, but to be aware,” Jennings said.
“Should we stop playing those songs?” she continued. “No, but if we do them, they need to be couched in the history of our country and we’re encouraging musicians to at least be prepared to talk about them whether on the stage or off.”
Tracing its roots to gourd instruments in West Africa, the banjo became a staple among enslaved Africans and ultimately evolving into a uniquely American instrument.
For the concert Saturday, Sept. 14, more than a dozen artists from around the country will perform “music written by, about or for black Americans, from our history,” Jennings said.
Prior to the concert, the musicians, artists and peformers will gather for several days as part of a creative retreat at Jennings’ Route 20 farm, where they’ll share their latest projects, hike, relax and perform for and with one another. “We tell them not to bring anything but their instruments. We’ll take care of everything else,” she said.
Proceeds from the concert will support ImaniWorks Foundation and its efforts toward conflict transformation by teaching people how to be nonviolent, environmentally conscious members of the community through workshops and cultural events.
“We have an amazing group of musicians and artists,” Jennings said, rattling off names like Clifftop Banjo Champion Jake Blount, Cajun accordion player Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes, former Chocolate Drops fiddle player Justin Robinson, National Heritage Fellow and harmonica virtuoso Phil Wiggins and award-winning urban dance educator and cultural diplomat Junius Brickhouse.
“They’re all overachievers and incredibly talented,” Jennings added. “They’re not just black banjo players and string musicians. They’re also our allies in this effort.”
Affrolachian On-Time Music Gathering
The Affrolachian On-Time Music Gathering will be held Saturday, Sept. 14, with gates opening at 4 p.m. and the concert scheduled from 6 to 8 p.m. A community musical jam will follow from 9 p.m. - until. The cost for the concert is $25. (Overnight camping is available on the grounds of Jennings Farm for $20.) Children 12 and under are admitted for free with a paying adult. A free gospel sing concert follows Sunday, Sept. 15, from 10 a.m. to noon.
Proceeds from the concert will support ImaniWorks Foundation.
For more information on the community concert or ImaniWorks, visit www.imaniworks.org.