TRYING TO RESTORe THE VALUE OF SOCIETY’S FAVORITE ART FORM
A long time ago, a friend told me a joke:
Q: What's the difference between a banjo and a vacuum cleaner?
A: You have to plug the vacuum in before it will suck.
Every instrument has its place. Often the sound of a specific instrument (its timbre) can be a defining characteristic of a certain style of music. For example, if you’ve ever wondered what heavy metal would sound like without guitar distortion, check out this video:
The resulting sound seems like something from a 1960s beach movie rather than befitting a headbanger, but there you are. The sound makes the style. Some instruments have, for a long time, been highly marginalized from the world of rock music (broadly defined). For example:
I suppose the banjo was the first of these to come onto my radar. Artists like Mumford and Sons and Elle King use the banjo to suck an extent that the instrument has become synonymous with their respective sounds (well, until Mumford and Sons last album, anyway). There is no mistaking this music for country or bluegrass, however. In spite of the added sound, the style is still rock. Perhaps rock blended with traditional, Americana, bluegrass-like sound, but nonetheless rock.
“I Will Wait”: Mumford and Sons: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rGKfrgqWcv0
“America’s Sweetheart”: Elle King:
I found myself wondering what would inspire a young musician I this day and age to learn the banjo in the first place. I have to say, I was mildly amused at what I discovered. Mumford and Sons banjoist, Winston Marshall, was once quoted (by a bandmate) as saying that when he first began forming bands “[he] didn’t have a f•••ing idea what [he] was doing,” so he just kind of made it up as he went along, and because the banjo was so rarely used in rock, no one noticed (!).
As for Elle King, her motives were a bit more pure. Having already learned guitar, she began to teach herself the banjo after discovering the music of Earl Scruggs and other traditional bluegrass artists. That said, she does not feel that the instrument needs to be restricted in style. She told Jamie Latty, “It doesn’t have to be country. It doesn’t have to be bluegrass, It’s just an incredibly beautiful instrument that evokes a different kind of feeling when you listen to it.”
Still seeking more of an idea of what draws young people to an instrument typically associated within largely extinct (at least during these artists’ formative years) I sought out the background of Scott Avett, of the Avett Brothers, a band whose style blends bluegrass, punk, ragtime, and pop all into one. Avett describes his connection to the banjo:
I did not start playing it at all until I was 19 or 20 years old… When I did begin inquiring about playing the banjo, and thinking of it as something I might want to play, I instantly felt connected. I think I started playing it because it was reflective of my voice and my need to write songs and find an instrument that was reflective to my voice. There was a presence that’s undeniable about the volume and the shape of the sound that comes out of a banjo, and that presence being so potent and so solid. It was almost like the sound of the banjo was possibly something that I longed for my voice to be like, abrasive at times but also dynamic enough to be pretty, and also very childlike at times and also it would be very strong and big. It was an instrument that’s very self-sustaining.
It was not until the KONGOS that I learned that an accordion could sound funky. There is nothing even vaguely polka-like about this group. In fact, they just rock, really hard. In fact, when I purchased their second album, Lunatic from 2008, I was kind of disappointed at the lack of variety in their sound, but I still love this song…
“Come With Me Now”: The KONGOS: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gz2GVlQkn4Q
Johnny Kongos is the oldest of four brothers, originally from South Africa. Their father, a singer and songwriter, who had a modest success in the 1960 and 70s, encouraged all of his children to study music, and young Johnny initially learned the piano. He transferred his keyboard skills to the accordion to pursue his fascination with global music styles and decided to introduce the instrument into the band’s sound when they needed an unusual sound to fill out the texture on their first album. He further states, “You can’t rock out behind a keyboard.”
So, all of this is good an interesting, but what truly inspired me to write this essay today was a recording I heard this afternoon. Check this out:
“Bohemian Rhapsody”: Jake Shimabokuro: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PB3RbO7updc
DUDE! This is so cool! I heard this and became fascinated by how such a seemingly humble instrument would replicate all of the complex harmonies and textures of Queen’s classic song. This guy rocks a ukulele! How is that even possible?
An instrument most closely associated with Hawaiian music, the ukulele had brief moments of widespread popularity with Vaudeville performers and in country string bands. It is a relatively easy string instrument to learn and play, and thus is commonly heard in musical styles one might perceive as simplistic. The Hawaiian origins of the instrument have contributed to a resurgence in recent decades with performers like Shimabokuro (who grew up in Honolulu) and Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, whose recordings of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World” have been successful as digital singles and Youtube hits.
What differentiates these performers is their degree of skill with the instrument. Kamakawiwo’ole merely strums his uke to accompany his (admittedly lovely) voice, whereas Shimabokuro makes his instrument to things that almost seem impossible. He might almost see his as the Jimi Hendrix of the ukulele, manipulating his instrument in such a way as to create sounds no one has heard before.
Shimabokuro began learning the instrument from his mother at age four. He states on his website, “I fell in love with the ukulele immediately…. You had to pry the instrument from my hands to get me to do anything else.” Good thing, too.
So, what can we take from all of this? I think it is safe to say that in a world of music played on random, radio stations that pride themselves on blending musical styles, and bands that refuse to be labelled, that associating any given instrument with a single musical style no longer works. Whether this is a product of post-modern thinking, the rediscovery of traditional styles of music by younger generations, or hipsters running amok, I cannot say. However, for me, broadening the timbral vocabulary of popular music is a good thing.
What do you think? How do these unusual instruments alter your perception of what mainstream rock music “is”? Is this a step forward in popular music history or just a novelty? What other strange instruments have you heard in rock music?
 Jamie Milton. “Mumford and Sons: ‘Fuck the Banjo.’” http://diymag.com/2015/04/24/mumford-sons-interview-fuck-the-banjo
 Jamie Latty. “Elle King Interview – ‘It doesn’t have to be bluegrass.’” http://blog.deeringbanjos.com/elle-king-interview-it-doesnt-have-to-be-bluegrass/
 Jamie Deering. “Scott Avett Interview.” http://blog.deeringbanjos.com/scott-avett-interview/
 Christa T. for Accordion Americana. “Johnny Kongos – Accordionist, the band KONGOS.” https://accordionamericana.com/2015/09/30/johnny-kongos-accordionist-of-kongos/
 “Ukulele.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ukulele
 “About Jake Shimabokuro.” http://www.jakeshimabukuro.com/home/about/
Molly M. Breckling holds a Ph.D. in Historical Musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her areas of research interest are the songs of Gustav Mahler, popular music, and music history pedagogy. Her goal is to help others listen to music more actively and to develop a greater appreciation for the music that surrounds us every day.