Nora Brown, the banjo prodigy singing tales of Appalachia

Musician Nora Brown plays her banjo prior to performing at the Brooklyn Americana Music Festival on September 19, 2021, in New York City. — AFP pic
Musician Nora Brown plays her banjo prior to performing at the Brooklyn Americana Music Festival on September 19, 2021, in New York City. — AFP pic

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NEW YORK, Oct 10 — At an age when most teenagers are busy learning the latest TikTok dance craze, banjo virtuoso Nora Brown has just released her second album of old-time twang.

When her parents gifted her a ukulele for Christmas at age six they never envisioned she would emerge as one of the bluegrass world’s rising stars.

The 16-year-old raised in Brooklyn first encountered the banjo while taking lessons with the late Shlomo Pestcoe, a local expert in traditional music.

And now Brown is among the musicians carrying on traditions from the mountains of Appalachia, passed down from the genre’s old masters.

As a child “I wasn’t aware of how unique and how special it was to be learning that, 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 is “to spread awareness of more of the complexity of old-time traditional music that I feel is not valued, or like, recognized within popular culture.”

People often treat the banjo as “a bit of a joke,” she said.

“I think that’s due just to lack of understanding of the complexities of this music.”

As a steward of the genre, Brown is acutely aware of the banjo’s complicated history; the string instrument commonly associated with white men from the American south is of West African origin.

Today’s banjo is built in the image of its ancestors, West African folk lute instruments, concepts of which enslaved Africans brought to the United States in the 1600s and 1700s.

White people in Appalachia appropriated the instrument and it became a key component of the American folk vernacular. It was notably central to the racist minstrel shows of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The banjo later found roles in ragtime and jazz movements, and was also strongly associated with folk troubadours like Pete Seeger.

Brown said in considering songs she is careful to understand their back stories, “because much of the recorded music that we are able to reference today was recorded in a very vicious and gross time in history.”

“Even in songs that aren’t outwardly racist or outwardly offensive, there can be underlying references or just a history that is not perceived on the first listen,” she explained. “That’s why I try to look into the history of the songs that I do.”

Brown voiced interest in the “interconnection of cultures that created the traditional music that we hear and play today,” and credited contemporary musicians like Rhiannon Giddens, a celebrated bluegrass artist, with “bringing attention to the African history of the banjo.”

“There are so many sides to what makes traditional music today in America.”

School-banjo balance

In late September, Brown released her second album, Sidetrack My Engine, which features arrangements of songs she learned during visits in places like eastern Kentucky. 

She’s worked with a number of prominent elder musicians, including the late Lee Sexton, an award-winning master banjo player and former coal miner.

She recorded the album — which followed her debut Cinnamon Tree, released when she was just 13 — in 2020 during the pandemic, in the cave of her parents’ cheese-ageing facility in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighbourhood.

Brown attends a performing arts-focused high school in Queens, a balancing act that sometimes requires “tricky decisions” between perfect attendance and concert appearances.

The core consideration for Brown is whether such appearances are for “something that you are ready to enjoy, rather than something that’s just about promotion.”

Despite being a banjo prodigy, Brown is, like most teens, unsure of her career path: “I definitely always want to still play music, but I’m not sure if I’m going to be a full-time musician.”

Her father, Benton Brown, said his daughter’s one-time hobby is turning into “something much bigger” than he and his wife ever anticipated.

They’re entirely supportive of her career as a musician, he said, but also are sure to introduce her to mentors who are “touring and struggling,” so she understands the uncertainty professional artists often face.

There weren’t any signs of struggle for Brown as she closed out the Americana festival in her hometown, strumming to 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, by explaining that she doesn’t “normally condone murder” but that this story features a woman who shoots her husband for cheating.

It’s a rare old-time tune that features a woman in power rather than victimised, 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 across the strings in perfect accord. — AFP

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