With its deep connections to West African music, the banjo's unique hybrid of string and percussion sounds calls communities together through the storyteller-griots and the everyday musicians whose music brings people together. With the debate over the source of the banjo as either the ngoni, a griot instrument in West Africa, and the akonting (with its frailing or clawhammer techniques), the instrument associated with community music in Africa came to America as part of the slave trade.
Since then the banjo's strident, beguiling tones have been deployed as "an instrument that's forever been caught between colliding vectors of American culture—black and white, masculine and feminine, rural and urban, among others. The instrument served as a means of preserving and syncretizing various African aesthetics and belief systems among African-Americans, and also served as an emblem of cultural crossover and collaboration with Anglo-Americans; but equally, it was used as a tool of cultural exploitation, serving as an emblem of racist slander and stereotyping through its use in blackface minstrelsy in particular."
The Banjo Mechanics are Canadian Banjo prospectors. In 2014 they released their first full-length album, JLP, a collection of compositions written as a vehicle for exploring alternative banjo techniques. Featuring the work of longtime collaborators Ian Pattison and Lewis Melville, who first played together in 1995, the Banjo Mechanics make use of rich textures, extended techniques, improvisation, and unexpected sonic convergences to weave their magic. Since then the Banjo Mechanics have gone on to release Luck of the Beanrow and to headline the Guelph Banjofest, and annual roots music festival featuring an eclectic line-up of banjo suffused music.
Ian Pattison is a luthier, banjo player and drummer from Guelph Ontario. Ian’s studio of stringed instruments has been 40-plus years in the making and includes not just the status quo but also experimental pieces that are unique and one of a kind. Over the last few decades, Ian has performed with many fine musicians including Steven Page, Jah Youssouf, Tony Trishka, Jamie Stone, Chris Quinn, the Meteors, Tannis Slimmon, and a host of others.
Considered by many to be one of Canada’s top banjo makers, he has handcrafted conventional and unusual instruments for artists as diverse as the Great Lake Swimmers and Mali’s Jah Youssouf for almost four decades. He himself is a player with a strong foundation in bluegrass technique; he is nonetheless dedicated to extending the range of banjo performance beyond the conventional.
A Guelph, Ontario, musician, composer, producer, visual artist, and multi-instrumentalist, Lewis Melville grew up in small-town Ontario.
He was introduced to live banjo music at barn dances and at Barton’s Inn in New Dundee, a club that showcased the top Canadian and American bluegrass groups of the day.
He ordered his first banjo (a custom-made archtop 5-string) from local instrument maker Jake Neufeld in 1978 and has been playing, recording, and composing on banjo ever since. His role as a producer and musician has taken him around the world to countries like India, Cambodia, Bhutan, always with banjo in hand. His work with Malian (West Africa) musicians Jah Youssouf and Mansa Sissoko is featured in a documentary film The Road to Baleya by award-winning Canadian film producer Bay Weyman.
A long time advocate and performer of alternative pop, country roots, and experimental music, his banjo and pedal steel playing can be heard in unexpected places, including on recordings by many well-known Canadian bands (Skydiggers, barenaked ladies, Cowboy Junkies, Grievous Angels, Kim Stockwood, the Waltons, 13 Engines, the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir, Tannis Slimmon, Rheostatics, the Woodshed Orchestra, Jah Youssouf, the Silence Collective, and others). He has four albums under his own name and currently performs with the Banjo Mechanics, contemporary folk artist Tannis Slimmon, the Hoofbeats, Canadian free music pioneers the Vertical Squirrels, Toronto’s freak-out improv orchestra the Woodchoppers Association, and as a solo artist.
Lewis currently plays Pattison banjos including a bass 5-string banjo adapted from a 16-inch Slingerland floor tom.