Welcome to Cultivating Justice! Our 6-part series in collaboration with Land In Our Names (LION) and Out on the Land (OOTL, part of The Landworker’s Alliance) which weaves together interviews, conversations, music and reflections from Black people, people of colour, trans people, queer people and women, on their relationships with land, growing, and identity.
Our host for episode 5 is Marcus MacDonald – Land in Our Names member, grower, tour manager and organiser. Marcus takes us on an auditory journey centring on the banjo, and we learn why this instrument is intricately connected to Black culture, food growing and justice.
We sit in on a banjo lesson with Marcus and his friend and teacher Bianca Wilson, aka Island Girl. They play together, chat about country music, and discuss the history of the banjo, including how this instrument from African and Caribbean culture became mainstreamed in white culture throughout Europe and the United States. Marcus talks about how growing gourds to make banjos has become an important part of his cultural identity.
Next, we hear from Hannah Mayree – grower, herbalist and founder of the Black Banjo Reclamation Project, which aims to re-appropriate Black culture by returning banjos, instruments of African origin, to the descendants of their original makers. Hannah talks to us about how the project works, and how growing gourds to build banjos can be an immensely healing practice.
The Cultivating Justice podcast series is made by Sam Siva, Katie Revell, Hester Russell, Dora Taylor, Abby Rose and Nadia Mehdi. This episode featured conversations with Marcus Macdonald, Bianca Wilson and Hannah Mayree.
Find out more about the Black Banjo Reclamation Project here, and if you’d like to buy any of Hannah’s music, check out their bandcamp.
Our series music is by Taha Hassan. Our artwork is by @Blkmoodyboi.
Thank you to our funders, Farming the Future and the Roddick Foundation. And a big thank you to everyone who’s contributed in any way!
Visit landworkersalliance.org.uk/cultivating-justice/ to find out more.
Full Episode Transcript:
Cultivating Justice – Episode 5
Before we start, just a quick heads-up that this episode includes references to racism, colonialism and enslavement. Please take care as you listen.
Marcus: All right, let’s start. Hello everyone. I am sat here with my friend and banjo teacher, Bianca. Hi, how’re you doing?
Bianca: Good, how are you?
Marcus: Yeah, I’m good, I’m good. Do you want to like introduce yourself?
Bianca: I am Bianca, a.k.a. Island Girl, from South London, enjoying banjo fun.
Marcus: My name’s Marcus and I’m part of the Land in Our Names collective, and I’ve been working on the Cultivating Justice project. I made the first zine, “Banjo, gourds and callaloo”. It’s a personal zine talking about my journey with growing and growing culturally appropriate food. And then getting into trying to grow banjos.
I wanted to talk to Bianca because she’s one of the first black banjo players I’ve met in the UK. She’s been teaching me since 2020. I thought it was important to amplify her practice, and give her a voice through this podcast.
Bianca: How do you see the banjo as relevant to the Cultivating Justice project?
Marcus: I think throughout my growing journey as a person that grows food and stuff like that, I started to get more interested in like growing food from Jamaical or things from Jamaica or the African diaspora. My dad and stepmom both grow a lot of like callaloo and like sweet potatoes and stuff like that. So through my growing, I was like getting more interested in growing just like non-European stuff, things from Africa and the Caribbean. So not many people know that like the banjo originated in Africa and, that it’s actually made from gourds, it’s made from a vegetable, a plant. Do you know what I mean?
Bianca: And animal parts.
Marcus: And animal parts, you know? Yeah. So for me, it’s very relevant to Cultivating Justice because I think it’s a pretty untold, unexplored story. I think it’s a story that we need to amplify and there’s so much more that we can explore and open up with that.
Let’s talk a little bit about the banjo, I reckon.
Bianca: Yeah. There’s a deficit of Black banjo players in the UK, unfortunately. We’re trying to change that.
Marcus: Yeah, exactly.
Bianca: Slowly, slowly.
Marcus: I’ve been into like country music and bluegrass and old-timey music for a long time, but never really delved deep into the history of the banjo. I think what sparked the interest, my friend Takiaya who’s in a band called Divide and Dissolve introduced me to Hannah Mayree, when we were on tour in the States. And she has a project called the Black Banjo Reclamation Project, which we’ll talk a bit more about later on.
And I think that is when I started getting interested in researching and looking at the true history and the origins of the banjo. And then I started to find people like you on the internet and then like Our Native Daughters, Rhiannon Giddens, just starting to see more and more like Black banjo players, and it just sparked an interest.
Narration: Just to explain – Rhiannon Giddens is a multi instrumentalist musician from the United states who founded the Old-Time string band Carolina Chocolate Drops, she is also a member Our Native Daughters a super band made up of four black female banjo player. She is a really important artist and researcher exploring the essential contributions of black people in folk music.
Marcus: And then my housemate and my partner bought me a banjo for my birthday. Cause I kept going on about it and how I wanted to start. And I really wanted to start lessons. What about you?
Bianca: I kind of just decided that I wanted this banjo and my mum got me it from my 21st birthday and I think it just gathered dust. So yeah, had the banjo for like two years. Didn’t really know why I wanted it. I just knew that I did want it. And then when I had it, didn’t really know what to do with it. And then I think I was at a festival couple of years later and saw someone there playing a banjo, and playing clawhammer banjo.
Narration: Clawhammer Banjo is a method of playing where the strings are struck using the back of your index or middle finger nail, then alternately plucked with your thumb. Clawhammer refers both to the shape of your hand as you play (claw-like), and the way that you strike the strings (by hammering them). It is a common component of American old-time music and this style of playing was brought to the Americas by enslaved Africans along with the Banjo itself.
Bianca And then I think as I sort of went down the rabbit hole of like listening to people online and I guess finding Rhiannon Giddens in particular, I began to see for the first time, the true history and then maybe begin to understand why and how I’d come to this instrument.
Marcus: Mm, okay.
Bianca: Felt like a bit of a calling.
Yeah. We know that the banjo came from West Africa and left with, or was taken, with the folks that were taken from there.
The first sort of historical documentation of banjos were in Jamaica, in the 1600s. It was something like a banjo, but we can’t be certain that it was, and also it was a four-string instrument. So maybe it’s something sort of more along the lines of what a tenor banjo would be now? It’s in Jamaica and then also in St. Kitts in the 1600s, there’s documentation of the banjo then. And then I think the earliest documentation of banjo in the US was the 1700s. And that’s when we know that it definitely is a banjo. And we see like, a lot of white people start playing the banjo cause they’re sort of taught it by their slaves or by their mothers’ or fathers’ slaves.
And so there does become this white interest in the banjo in the 18th century, and then when we move into the 19th century, and see the sort of like rise of like minstrelsy as a form of entertainment, that’s kind of when the banjo goes worldwide.
Marcus: So through the minstrelsy and the sort of mockery of Black people and the racist depictions of black people, the banjo became mainstreamed throughout…
Bianca: Yeah, it became popular.
Marcus: Popular throughout like European cultures and stuff.
Does anyone have any idea of what was happening to it in the diaspora? So in Africa, or the Caribbean or was it still being played?
Bianca: Yeah, so it was still being used a lot in Caribbean music, but in a totally different context, it was in mento music. I think it very often gets confused with Calypso, but what people don’t realise is that there is no Calypso in Jamaica. Calypso’s from Trinidad. Mento is from Jamaica.
Um, so there are like common crossover themes, but two very specifically different sounds and yeah, mento is what you would hear the banjo in.
Marcus: And that’s still played now. There’s still mento bands.
Bianca: There’s still mento bands now, but yeah, the banjo stopped really being played popularly and mento music in the fifties.
Marcus: That’s a shame, isn’t it.
In Jamaica and all over the Caribbean, actually, they love country music. Do you know what I mean? There’s always like country music radio stations in the Caribbean. And so when you told me that the banjo was there before it was in the States, it all made sense, really? I listened to a radio show the other day on NTS and it was this guy, I can’t remember his name, he’s got a country show. But he’s Black and he explores country music in the diaspora. So it was really cool. So that particular day was all Nigerian country. It’s another thing to explore at some point is the full circle.
Bianca: Yeah, the way it sort of goes and comes back around again.
Marcus: Yeah. So it’s like, you know, it got appropriated in white culture and now it’s come back and like there’s a huge country scene all over Africa and in the Caribbean.
Bianca: It’s about sort of cultural sharing and exchange as well, like, especially with like clawhammer, like old time music and Appalachian music. It’s a real combination of like different cultures.
Marcus: That is kind of what folk music, isn’t it, music of the people, the music of the folks. It’s like, you’re passing down the knowledge. It’s not classical music training. It’s, you know, call and response and circles and stuff like that.
Bianca: Do you want to play? Should we play…
Marcus: Oh God. Okay. Warning everyone. Haven’t played in a very long time. So…
Bianca: Do you wanna try and play Old Joe Clark?
Marcus: This is the one I kept practising. So I’m going to try, but I will probably not be great. Let’s see.
D’you wanna explain, like to me and to listeners of how to play? Like what you told me earlier on?
Bianca: Yeah. I guess the thing about plantation music, skiffle music, jug band music, is that people didn’t have much, they didn’t really have anything. And so everything had to be made. Um, you know, by oneself. It’s sort of like the original punk DIY movement.
Bianca: Uh, which is why, I guess why it’s so important and a part of cultivating justice, because that is such a like grassroots anarchist movement in its own way, sort of like green anarchy.
Marcus: Yeah, definitely.
Bianca: This is another homemade instrument. These bones, they would have originally been made with bones and played in the sort of like early skiffle and like plantation music and bands. And yeah, you kind of play them in triplets. You sort of hold them between your hands and you throw your hands from side to side and you can make a sort of like triplet sound like this.
Narration: For this episode, I also spoke to Hannah Mayree. Hannah is a creative facilitator and a multi instrumentalist folk Musician from California who founded the Black Banjo Reclamation project. Hannah creates music that reimagines folk tradition through an afro-futurist lens, honours the lineage of Black Banjo, and provides experiences which remind us how we can create a shared vision of freedom based on learning and growing together.
The Black Banjo Reclamation Project is a vehicle to return instruments of African origin to the descendants of their original makers. Their theory of change is tied directly to re-appropriating their own culture by receiving banjos in the form of reparations and over time, gaining skills that will advance individuals and communities for generations to come. This includes ancestral survival and land based skills including fostering the trade of instrument building and repair. The Black Banjo Reclamation Project runs Gourd Banjo building workshops and Banjo lessons for black people throughout the year all over the United States.
I was introduced to Hannah by my good friend Takiaya Reed whilst we were on tour in California with Takiaya’s band Divide and Dissolve.
I wanted to speak to Hannah as part of the Cultivating Justice project because I found the work that they are doing with the Black Banjo Reclamation project really inspiring and relevant to the aims of this project. Hannah sparked an interest in me to start growing and building my own banjos and they sent me some Banjo Gourd seeds. I have managed to successfully grow some Gourds in London and the dream is to start Banjo building workshops with Hannah over here.
Hannah: I’m Hannah Mayree. I am working on amongst other things the Black Banjo Reclamation Project. In the pre-COVID times, I was mostly a performer. I was facilitating a lot of singing circles. I’ve always done a lot of herbalism. I’ve been farming like mostly for the last 10 years. And I’ve been doing that as like a displaced person.
And so it has been a huge part of my life to just commune with the earth and with nature through music. I’m like a diasporic person of the West Coast. Both my parents are from California and my dad’s family is white, Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews. And my mom’s side of the family is all people that I’m presuming are from West African descent.
They were living and growing and cultivating, not by their own choice in Florida for several generations. And my grandmother was part of the great migration and ended up coming to Oakland back in the fifties. So I think it’s a different place almost to be reclaiming a lot of these traditions, because like even the traditions that are really connected with banjo, every time that there’s like a migration that is kind of forced, it’s like, there’s that disconnection, you know, it’s different if literally we’re like, we’re going to pick up, we’re going to bring our culture with us.We’re going to bring all this stuff with us and we’re going to go to another land. It’s different when like there’s a severance. My grandma was trying to get away from the lynchings, you know, so it was like that wasn’t just like you decided to move to Oakland. You’re escaping white terrorism.
Marcus: How did you get into growing?
Hannah: I grew up in Sacramento and I lived in a small house that had a really big backyard. And that was my first like real experience I think just with nature. Having a grandma that knew about canning and like growing stuff, and like would use aloe vera and all of these different things. There’s so much magic in every part of the plant. There was a lot of energy there. Just being able to go out and water the garden, just as a little kid, that is I think just a blessing that I have had a healing experience with land from the time I was small.
It wasn’t until I was out of high school that I was able to start pursuing that myself. I went to Sacramento City College for a few years. I did a biology class. Through that class I was just like, oh, okay, plants. I just, I want to know more about them because they’re awesome. And I was able to find a neighbor of mine who was an elder, whose name is Judy. And she had this garden, like across the river, that she had been growing for 30, 40 years. And it was a chance for me to see just for the first time, like this is what the whole growing season looks like. And I was able to see what sort of natural organic gardening was like. That just sort of became my life, you know, path. I chose to go to Florida in the winter of 2010. My ancestors were cultivating that land without their own consent, you know?
They were forced to do labor on that land. And I just wanted to make sure, especially while my great aunt was still alive, that I really got to spend time with her and with my family and on the land that they have there. I was able to be on this 20-acre permaculture homestead, where I learned about a lot of plants. Permaculture is obviously like a concept that’s been taken worldwide and we all know what permaculture is, is our practices. It’s been a systematic thing of removing that from us so that we can be, you know, working for other people and stuff. Because when we’re doing this work, we are not useful in capitalism. So we have to also recognize that as a form of resistance.
Marcus: I want to talk about the banjo. Now that’s what I want to get my teeth into that. How does it, how does it feel to you to practice something like this, you know? And do you feel a connection to your ancestors through the instrument and the gourd?
Hannah: Yeah, I would definitely say yes. You know, if you’ve, if you’ve had that experience, then like, it is an experience where it’s not a forced thing. I’ve had a lot of experiences with like listening to the music where definitely just feel it in my body. And in order for you to play it, you have to feel that in your body, it’s something that’s coming from inside of you. And it’s like coming from the past.
People have been creating instruments from what was around them for a very long time. And no matter where those people went, they brought that with them, whether they brought the seeds, whether they brought the instruments. I mean, there are accounts of people, as far as colonizers coming, they were stealing people because they could play the banjo. They were stealing ’em cause of it!
Marcus: Can you tell us about the Banjo Reclamation Project and your journey of growing gourds and building your banjo? Tell us all about it.
Hannah: The banjo is something that can be seen as very distinctly American. Like what America has done to Black people is really like an expression of it. You took something that was natural and you made it into something that was still natural, but it had a lot of places where it was super duper compromised and it was made to be different. The banjo is part of the original expression, you know, of being indigenous people on the continent and being in relationship with goats, being in relationship with the plants that produced the gourds. It was something that I came across and did not know, you know, for my whole life that the banjo was coming from African roots.
Hannah: For me, part of our work is just recognizing that it’s going to be a host of emotions. What wrongs have happened through white supremacy and the effect that white supremacy has on things like, you know, there’s, there’s a lot of emotions. I think that for me, what I hope to do with this project is just to create a space where there can be healing in there and that we, and that we can just have acknowledgement and that like wherever we are on that journey, that that’s like a legitimate place to be on that journey because it is ancestral.It is cultural, it is historical, it is racial, it’s being human. So I just want to recognize our humanity as Black people to venture into those worlds. And one of the biggest ways that I think we support that journey is by having banjos. Of course it’s extremely valuable and important to look at those histories and know those histories.
What we also need is just to be able to have that experience on our own. We are humans. We know how to heal ourselves. You know, one of the ways we do that is with music. The banjo is for me really relevant, like in that way. You know to me and I think to a lot of people, and that was what I was realizing through my own journey with it. And that was why I wanted to be able to create a way to bring some of these ideas and actions and conversations and projects together.
Marcus: That’s amazing. How exactly does the Banjo Reclamation Project work?
Hannah: I don’t want to, as an organization pretend like we have this all figured out. We’re three years in and we’re still in the process of building a lot of the foundational ways of like, how do you plug in? How do you get a banjo? Like what, what is sort of the logistical aspects of it? The very first year that it happened was in 2019. And it was actually a lot of programming and workshops and just community events. Like it was a ton of them. It was great. We hosted a documentary viewing of this film – that’s “The life and times of Joe Thompson”, who is a old time fiddler in North Carolina.
We did a showing of that and we kind of just were inviting people to come. It was actually at a organic garden store in Oakland, Black owned, and we kicked off a workshop series that was one workshop per month. For four months. Each time we had a guest teacher, we had time to actually play the instruments and just do activities and just engage with each other. We would do that and we would do a potluck. You know, that was hosted by another really awesome community space, the East Side Arts Alliance and having culturally appropriate food, like a lot of soul food, a lot of just like nutritious food around together, playing music.
And I think it’s just nice to have that experience of like being around in a circle and everybody can just grab an instrument and like you maybe never got to play a banjo before. Maybe you never got to try to play a fiddle. Maybe you want to. And I think it’s just nice to create spaces where that’s welcome and we can explore that.
The other piece has been acquiring banjos so that we can actually have distribution. We were collecting the banjos mostly from white people, and we’ve had a lot of amazing donors and that has been like a really great thing to speak on. And to be able to say like, this is like not a donation, this is, this is reparations. We’ve distributed a lot of banjos, somewhere around like 30 to 40 at this point. And that’s over like three years.
We wanted to build banjos from the beginning. We had a banjo-building workshop that happened in February of 2020, and it was completely by the grace of spirit that we were able to have that workshop because we brought so many moving parts together. I cannot believe that we did this! Like we had a room full of bandsaws. We had drill presses, we had wood and two white teachers, Paul and Joanne. They even did some fundraising with their folk community to be able to contribute to this. It was just a very blessed thing to have happen, to be able to just have the opportunity to build something. There’s like a lot of other people doing Black banjo stuff, and this is really the first of its kind that has been really looking at it in a way that is very holistic.
Marcus: Why do you think it’s important to grow and make our own banjos as Black people?
Hannah: Because of self-determination. So this isn’t about asking for justice or trying to convince people to like, provide us with like liberation, because that has been a very like white-centric kind of like approach to things. It’s like, if you just give me this, then I’ll be okay. You know? And it really kind of supports the codependency on white people. And you know, like I’ve said, this is a multicultural collaboration and I, I really support the white folks who want to support this work and understand that our liberation is tied together. And also it has to happen through Black self-determination. And just also acknowledging the Black radical tradition and the tradition of it being a liberation movement.
All of that liberation movement for me in this country, it is tied to land. This is about liberation when, you know, we’re getting gentrified out of our neighborhoods and stuff, and we need a place to live. We need a place to literally exist to go and grow something and play music. And we don’t even have that. So all of that is what this is tied to, is that we have a place here. You know, if you are a diasporic person, there’s a chance like you’re in where you are not fully consensually, but we belong to the earth and it’s important that we recognize where we come from, no matter where we are.
So connecting to land, it connects us back to the motherland. And you know, my goal is to be able to go there. My goal is to be able to have this experience where we can create more relationships with people on the continent and people in the Caribbean and in different diasporic communities so that we can continue supporting each other in the ways that we’re asking and what are being asked of us. Because everybody needs healing. It looks really different. And I don’t know how to tell someone else what their healing looks like, but definitely just being able to tap into that on my own. It has definitely shown me that this is a very good thing to be able to know where these things are coming from. The banjo didn’t come from the store. A lot of these banjos they’ll say “manufactured in China”. It literally has made it accessible for us through globalisation. But if you also look at the industrialisation of the banjo, you know, that is what brought it farther away from our tradition. And it brought it closer to white people because they were patenting this shit, making money off of this shit.
And like if you are a white person, part of this tradition, you have to look at what your legacy in banjo has been. If you think that Black lives matter, then yeah. This is a concept for you, if you’re actually interested in liberation. If this is something that makes you uncomfortable, then you’re probably benefiting from whatever it is that was stolen.
There’s a banza that’s in Amsterdam right now. That was stolen. That you can go to some museum and see this. And like, there’s like the account of the dude that wrote it.
Marcus: What’s a banza?
Hannah: It’s the ancestor.
Marcus: Of banjo?
Mm-hm. I’m trying to think if that one was actually from Suriname. It’s one of the oldest banjos that like they have anywhere, and to me it’s just like this shit is offensive because like you’re literally pillaging people. And potentially killing them and taking their instruments. And then now it’s in a museum? Like you didn’t get that because someone gave it to you. If we’re not going to have a conversation about this. Then like I’m not going to give white people, all of these benefits of the doubt of that you’re just doing this because you’re interested in music or whatever, because that’s white supremacy, when you want to ignore the how and why you have this in the first place. And why do you even have access to even researching it? Why, why are you being given money from organizations to go around the world and study this when there’s actually people that are a part of those cultures that could be doing that work?
That’s part of what the reclamation is, is like, how can we support scholarship in this realm of people who are actually like looking at this from a radical perspective to do that work that can also support others getting access to this as well. You know, and being able to create those channels between different diasporic communities, where this exists.
Marcus: I did actually attempt to grow some banjos and kind of succeeded. They didn’t get as big as I wanted. I’ve got one big one and then I’ve got one that’s yeah. So there could be a small one and then a big one.
Bianca: Maybe some gourd ukeleles.
Marcus: Yeah, we’ll see what we can make out of them. I think we should try and use them for sure. I think that there is a deep connection between growing and music because of I guess like our ancestors… people working in the fields, I mean, even pre slavery, cause it’s not all about slavery, our culture has been quite musical. There’s different songs that you would sing when you’re planting or sowing seeds or harvesting, there’s different ways to celebrate those. Different rituals and salutations and stuff like that. And obviously when people were enslaved and put on the plantation, you know, there was obviously sort of songs that people would sing as they were forced to work as well. So I feel like there’s a deep, longstanding partnership between music and growing and like really beautiful history and a really horrific history.
Bianca: Music and labor is something that pacifies the soul. Creates that sense of togetherness.
Marcus: And the, the thing that I really like about growing, especially this experience of growing gourds, I’m definitely going to grow again this year, is just feeling this connection to my ancestors. I just love growing things that I imagine ancestors would have been growing, you know? Yeah. It just feels quite deep in that way.
Bianca: I guess it helps to create that closeness, so much of which is like lost as well. And, um, not only because of displacement, but I feel like being able to trace your ancestors and understand them and see them is really like heavily tied into wealth. Like, if you didn’t have a camera, then how you know how certain people looked and, you know, having possessions that were passed down through generations, it’s a very privileged thing that not a lot of people have. And so we really have to kind of go the extra mile to create that psychic connection, because we don’t have the physical, uh, sort of leftovers of those times to sort of look to.
Marcus: The oral history. And that’s one thing that we do have, you know, that we’ve passed out and that’s through music, call and response songs. Some of these things go back, you know, some of these songs really, we don’t know how far back some of these songs go. I think also similar to you, you know, really want to help cultivate a space where Black people can get together and play music.
And it doesn’t have to be what society tells us to be, you know, it’s like, it can be alternative. It can be like traditional music or like folk music. You know, I am really interested with just exploring that idea that like Black people are not just limited to hip-hop and soul and RnB. You know, Black people invented rock and roll and different kinds of folk and yeah, just punk music…
It’s really perpetuated within the music industry that is sort of run by white men in suits that do want to see us in a certain way. And so you almost have to perpetuate those stereotypes in order to succeed. Maybe that moving forward, that’s what bringing folk music to the masses of Black people is about.
Yeah, definitely. Just creating space for inviting people into that. And I feel like that’s definitely started to happen with like punk and alternative music. There’s more and more like Black and POC alternative punk bands.
Bianca: It’s come back around.
Marcus: A lot of exciting opportunities. It’s been great talking to you. And so thank you so much.
Bianca: Thanks for listening, as well. Thanks Marcus.
Marcus: Imagine if I wasn’t recording that whole time.
For further info on the Black Banjo Reclamation Project you can find them on instagram or their website https://blackbanjoreclamationproject.org/
To find my zine Gourds, Banjos and Callaloo go to https://landinournames.community/