Nora Brown, the banjo prodigy singing Appalachian tales
New York (AFP)
At an age when most teens are busy learning the latest TikTok dance craze, banjo virtuoso Nora Brown has just released her second old-school twang album.
When her parents gave her a ukulele for Christmas at the age of six, they never imagined that she would become one of the rising stars of the bluegrass world.
The 16-year-old, raised in Brooklyn, first discovered the banjo while taking lessons with the late Shlomo Pestcoe, a local expert in traditional music.
And now Brown is one of the musicians carrying on the traditions of the Appalachian Mountains, handed down by the old masters of the genre.
As a child, “I didn’t realize how unique and special it was to learn this, especially in Brooklyn,” Brown said.
Speaking to AFP at the tip of Brooklyn Bridge Park where she recently headlined the borough’s Americana Music Festival, Brown said part of her drive to perform was to ” raise awareness of the complexity of the traditional music of the past which, in my opinion, is not valued, or as, recognized in popular culture. “
People often treat the banjo as “a bit of a joke,” she said.
“I think it’s just due to the lack of understanding of the intricacies of this music.”
As the steward of the genre, Brown is well aware of the complicated history of the banjo; the string instrument commonly associated with white men in the southern United States is of West African origin.
Today’s banjo is built in the image of its ancestors, the West African folk lutes, whose concepts of African slaves were brought to the United States in the 1600s and 1700s.
The Appalachian Whites appropriated the instrument and it became a key element in the popular American language. He was notably at the heart of the shows of racist minstrels of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The banjo then found roles in ragtime and jazz movements, and was also strongly associated with folk troubadours like Pete Seeger.
Brown said in reviewing the songs that she was careful to understand their stories, “because a lot of the recorded music that we can refer to today was recorded in a very vicious and crass time of the world. story”.
“Even in songs that are not overtly racist or offensive, there may be underlying references or just a story that is not perceived on first listen,” she explained. “That’s why I try to look in the history of the songs that I do.”
Brown expressed interest in “the interconnectedness of cultures that created the traditional music we hear and play today,” and credited contemporary musicians like Rhiannon Giddens, a famous bluegrass artist, “with attracting the attention to the African history of the banjo “.
“There are so many facets to what makes traditional music in America today.”
– School-banjo balance –
In late September, Brown released her second album, “Sidetrack My Engine,” which features arrangements of songs she learned while visiting places like eastern Kentucky.
She has worked with a number of prominent older musicians, including the late Lee Sexton, an award-winning master banjo player and former coal miner.
She recorded the album – which followed her ‘Cinnamon Tree’ debut, released when she was just 13 – in 2020 during the pandemic, in the cave of her parents’ cheese aging facility in the Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn.
Brown attends a performing arts high school in Queens, a balancing act that sometimes requires “tough decisions” between perfect attendance and concert appearances.
The main consideration for Brown is whether these appearances are for “something that you are ready to enjoy, rather than something just for promotion.”
Although she is a banjo prodigy, Brown, like most teenagers, is unsure of her career path: “I still want to keep playing music, but I don’t know if I’m going to be a musician. fulltime.”
Her father, Benton Brown, said his daughter’s unique hobby was turning into “something much bigger” than he and his wife ever anticipated.
They fully support her career as a musician, he said, but will also be sure to introduce her to mentors who “spin and struggle”, so that she understands the uncertainty professional artists often face.
There was no sign of a struggle for Brown as she wrapped up the Americana Festival in her hometown, strumming a standing ovation as the sun set over the Statue of Liberty behind her.
She prefaced the ballad “Frankie and Albert”, which has been widely recorded, including by Bob Dylan and Mississippi John Hurt, explaining that she does not normally “approve of the murder” but that this story features a woman who shoots her husband for cheating. .
It’s a rare old song that features a woman in power rather than being victimized, Brown said.
“Let’s hear a round of applause for that!” She joked with the audience, before launching into the classic, finger and thumb dancing on the strings in perfect harmony.
© 2021 AFP