THE BANJO SPECIAL featuring Chris Quinn , Arnie Naiman , Chris Coole and Brian TAheny at the Poor Alex Theatre (296 Brunswick), Saturday (January 31), 8 pm. And at the Tranzac Club (292 Brunswick), Sunday (February 1). $15 each show. 416-410-3655. Rating: NNNNN
The Fourth Annual Banjo special isn't being billed as a Black History Month event, yet the two-night picking party is nevertheless a celebration of an instrument deeply rooted in the African-American folk tradition. Writing about Virginia plantation slaves in 1781, Thomas Jefferson noted that "the instrument proper to them is the banjar, which they brought hither from Africa and which is the original of the guitar...."
Centuries before Hollywood helped transform what's often called "America's only indigenous folk instrument" into the de facto hayseed signifier of hillbilly hickness, a fretless, gut-stringed precursor of the modern banjo was being used by black slaves throughout Virginia and the Carolinas to create a unique, rhythmically sophisticated sound from which the blues, jazz and bluegrass would later spring.
"We didn't consciously stage the Banjo Special to coincide with Black History Month," says the Foggy Hogtown Boys' Chris Quinn, "but it's an interesting point, and one that should be addressed.
"A lot of people, even some banjo players, don't know that the instrument originated in Africa. I've met many folks in the States who will tell you the banjo is definitely an American invention. But, then, with some people, if it ain't bluegrass they don't want to hear about it."
Admittedly, the Banjo Special's concept of bringing together four of Toronto's top guns for an evening is a daunting proposition, but there's more than enough variation within the stylistic approaches of clawhammer thumpers Arnie Naiman and Chris Coole, spirited Irish tenor twanger Brian Taheny and bluegrass boss Quinn to avoid potentially deadly banjo overload.
They'll also be switching instruments to support each other - Coole backs Naiman on acoustic guitar, and vice versa - and bringing in special guests throughout the evening, so it's not quite as scary as the idea of four banjos combined might seem.
"People have told me that once they got past the image of four banjos on our Banjo Special (Merriweather) disc, there was no problem," offers Quinn. "I think it all comes down to a matter of perception. There's still a stigma associated with the banjo, and everyone who plays the instrument knows it."
As a consequence, banjo players have had to develop a thick skin and a good sense of humour about their obsession. So what is the difference between a banjo and a trampoline?
"You take your shoes off before you jump on a trampoline," Quinn fires back without missing a beat.
"Yeah, I've heard 'em all. But despite all the jokes, I've always thought playing the banjo was the coolest thing, and I still do."
Quinn can't seem to get enough of the banjo. If he isn't instructing one of his students in the subtleties of the bluegrass three-finger technique or jamming with his pals in Crazy Strings at the Silver Dollar's High Lonesome Wednesdays, he's probably out gigging with his fellow Foggy Hogtown Boys. The Hogtowners will finally be recording their long-overdue debut album live at the Lula Lounge February 6.
"About 12 years ago, if Chris Coole, Dan Whiteley and I weren't out playing this music somewhere in this city there wasn't much else happening.
"But that's all changed now. On any night of the week you can hear old-time-style string band music, traditional bluegrass, western swing, new acoustic folk and everything in between. This is a really great time for roots music in Toronto."