Saturday, February 5, 2011

'Til The Busking Begins Again: An Argy-Bargy On My Bandmates And My Banjitar

Alas, the clime here is not yet clement enough for busking, and so it gives me time and a certain delight to give some gossip about my bandmates and to brag about my banjitar.

Asunder, our band, the Grand Trunk Troubadours (GTT) is a collective of eight characters: singers Lillie, Judy, and Christina; guitar players Bill and Steve; Eric on the fiddle, Baron on the cajon, and I (basso profundo), on my banjitar. Lillie and Judy and Christina can play keyboards. Judy can also play the saxophone, and Christina can play the guitar. Christina and Judy are our pots & pans (auxiliary percussionists), and Lillie creates our song list and is our master of ceremonies for every gig. Lillie, as an MC, is not one to dissertate, since less chat means more singing!

Lillie sings soprano; Judy sings soprano and alto; Christina sings alto. Lillie and Judy and Christina are all distinctive and attractive vocalists, desirable assets for any band! Other singers in the GTT include Bill, who is a countrified baritone, Eric, a bluesy baritone, and myself, restricted to being a basso profundo.

Bill's guitar playing style is perspicuous; he is steady-eddy, having his cadence constant and predictable, and therefore putting those singers, within his proximity, at ease. Steve adds a choppy, punk-like rhythm into his guitar playing, providing our background beats a much needed modern appeal. Our congero, Baron, plays his invented and mean beats on congas, bongos, djembes, and cajon. The ever panglossian Eric plays the fiddle by ear or by note, his bow strokes sending violin chords eerily into our audiences, seemingly transcending all those strumming guitar sounds being emitted below. (Retrospectively, our band sound before Eric might be described as ennui.) Being the least skilled of our guitar players, I am redeemed only because of my fingerstyle technique on the twelve-string, and by my frailing fingers on the banjitar.

Ah … the banjitar!

1880's London. The Zither banjo is introduced. 1920's America. The six-stringed Zither is referred to as a banjitar, and is regarded as a serious solo instrument among swing and jazz musicians. And now in 2011, call it whatever, guitar banjo, guitjo, ganjo, or banjitar – Neil Young, Keith Urban, Bruce Springsteen, Ed Robertson (Barenaked Ladies), and Kevin Hayes (Old Crow Medicine Show -- pictured above) are just some of the signature names attached to it.

The banjitar is a percussion instrument that casts an empty, yet catchy, hollow string-stretched-over-a-barrel sound into its audience, and is quite endearing upon the moment it is strummed. In a band or on a busk, my banjitar has become very requisite to my identity and I love it (my banjitar and my identity)!

Back to the band. Our songs are varied because of our band philosophy: In the interests of band comity, all band members are given the opportunity to, and in fact encouraged to, sing. Should a member decide to sing, that member shall freely select from any genre his/her desired song. When the song is picked, it is incumbent upon the rest of the band members to contribute to that song in any way they can, attempting to make it the best song ever for the principal singer. For the most part, the songs chosen happen to be mostly from folk, country, 60's and, 70's pop. So far, it seems the tunes we've chosen are never demode, fresh even, in the sense that some of them haven't been listened to for ages! Soi-disant, and from the people that know us, the consensus is that we are a folk band.

In the beginning I do believe we were a cacophony of sorts, but now after seven years of steady gigging, our phone rings constantly. Regarding performances, we generally present very well, even though we do seem frenetic when it comes to start times and sound checks. The GTT has the standard time of 7 o'clock. Our pattern arrivals are as follows: Lillie arrives first, and plays the house piano until we're set up. Baron and I arrive right after Lillie, and we set up the microphones, amp, and monitors. Then Bill arrives, and sets up the speakers. Then comes Judy, Christina, Steve, and Eric. With five minutes remaining to start time, we do our sound checks, and this is always a bit hectic. Check. One. Two. Three. Check. One. Two. Three. Seems simple to write but proves difficult to be stated over and over again into the microphones until Christina gives the thumbs up on all five of them. I don't really know if this brief moment of perceived chaos creates any bias on the part of our audience members, but I cannot imagine it as having any effects that are positive.

However; saying this, the GTT has immeasurable positive qualities, one especially being that we are never a bully pulpit -- we keep our comments in our songs. And more importantly, because none of our members require the sustenance dollars our gigs provide, the GTT is but a sidequest for us all.

And all of us are in the Grand Trunk Troubadours for but one reason – Enjoyment!

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