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Oakland Woman Passing Along Tradition of Black Banjo

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If there's any instrument in the quiver of American music that can simultaneously summon heartbreak, salvation and joy, it just might be the banjo. It's a simple mechanism of hoop, animal skin, neck and strings -- and yet its music invokes a myriad of musical styles and stories from within the ragged pages of the American story. 

Brought over from Africa - or at least some version of it -- and adapted by slaves in the Caribbean and the U.S., its earliest origins lie deep within the Black American experience. And that's where Angela Wellman came to find it. 

"The banjo for me also represents an embrace of our Blackness, of our history in this country," said Wellman, founder of the Oakland Public Conservatory of Music. 

A native of Kansas City, a hotbed of traditional music, Wellman grew up playing drums and trombone professionally. Music was a birth rite, handed-down from musical parents to her and her siblings. 

"It’s just something that’s passed through the family," said Wellman. "There’s an expectation that’s what we’ll do." 

It's hard to say exactly when the banjo crossed Wellman's musical threshold -- perhaps it was when she first saw the Carolina Chocolate Drops, an old-time North Carolina string band featuring trad music visionary Rhiannon Giddens. Wellman began absorbing the melodies - and assembling an ever-growing collection of banjos(she now has seven). 

Something about the banjo's intertwining of percussion and melody carried hints of African music, filtered through several hundred years of DNA across multiple continents, coalesced into something purely American. As she plunged into its origins she could hear its stories unraveling like a gut string.  

"It represents roots, it represents home," Wellman said. "It represents reclamation, it represents resistance." 

Angela Wellman plays a fretless banjo in the Oakland Public Conservatory of Music which she founded in 2005. (Feb, 24, 2023)

Now Wellman is seeking to pass along the legacy and music of traditional Black banjo - through the Oakland music conservatory she founded in 2005. Wellman, along with others like veteran Berkeley old-time musician Suzy Thompson, are launching the Black Banjo and Fiddle Fellowship, a two-year paid fellowship that will link four Black students with instructors and cultural flag bearers to learn not only the music but soak up the spirit of Black banjo tradition. 

Wellman said the fellows will go on to teach banjo at her Oakland conservatory, planting musical seeds that will trickle down through future generations, much in the way most traditional music has been passed along.    

"My grandchildren’s grandchildren and their grandchildren will know," said Wellman, "the banjo and the fiddle in some of the deep roots in their development of music."

The structure of an old-time banjo may be a somewhat simple build, yet its trajectory has been anything but. It was a source of emotional escape for slaves and southern African-Americans who would sing together after a day of labor --  a vessel for the spiritual music that sustained them through hard times. It's maybe the cruelest of ironies that it was later co-opted by minstrel shows with performers wearing black face. For Wellman, that history is complicated. 

"My journey has been, as a lot of us, to reclaim it - to reclaim the music, to reclaim its history," said Wellman, clutching a fretless banjo of the minstrel-era style. "Minstrelsy placed the banjo inside of a very racist, disgusting environment." 

In that sense, The Black Banjo and Fiddle Fellowship is a project of liberation, not only passing along the music of old time Black musicians but helping to further purify the instrument of its minstrel past. The program plans to name its chosen fellows in March. Wellman hopes others will fall as deeply in love with the banjo as she has, embracing it and all its bits of history. 

"It is a reclamation project," Wellman said, "that also seeks to feed the future in the present."  

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