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Strings of Desire

Published on 10th October 2016

In the 1500s, the first Africans were taken from their homes, shackled and put on ships to sail across the Atlantic. For the next 300 years, shipment after shipment of kidnapped human beings plied the seas between West Africa and the New World. They brought with them a few items from home that may have given some solace. One of them was an instrument made from a gourd with a skin stretched over it and strings attached to a bamboo stick. This was the first banjo.

Over time, the bamboo stick was exchanged for a fret board with five strings, and the skin was stretched over a ring of wood or metal. With its percussive
aspect, it was popularised among slaves in America and the Caribbean as an accompaniment to dancing. Slave owners appropriated the instrument – learning to play it themselves, and even using it as a status symbol to demonstrate their slave-owning wealth. When slavery was finally abolished in the 1800s, the banjo was most commonly associated with African-American music. It was adopted by the trad-jazz scene in the 1950s, when a back or resonator was added to the ring, creating a more powerful sound to help it compete with the drum-kit and brass sections.

In more recent years, the banjo has brought to mind bluegrass music, and, through its association with Deliverance, frightening cultural stereotypes. But there’s been a sea-change in recent years: the likes of Mumford & Sons and Béla Fleck have re-invented the banjo sound, and given the instrument a new status.

Which brings us to an unexpected landing point for the banjo diaspora. Here, in a cold Cornish barn, banjo player and teacher John Dowling and luthier Louis Bauress create handmade banjos. “I lecture at Falmouth University,” John explains. “The students these days don’t know about Deliverance; they know about Mumford & Sons. They hear the banjo and think: Ah – cool.” He picks up a banjo that is lying on a dusty wooden workbench to demonstrate its versatility. It gleams in the dingy light of the barn, its glossy green head and intricately inlaid mother-of-pearl fretboard begging to be touched. “Go on, John, bash something out for us,” grins Louis as he dips a biscuit into his milky coffee. John’s fingers race over the strings and pluck out the implausibly fast rhythm of a bluegrass tune. His skill is in no doubt, but the twangyness of the music makes my ears ring. Then, seamlessly, he moves his fingers higher up the strings, towards the fretboard, and begins to play Bach’s cello suite. It is resonant and beautiful, and I can’t quite believe that one instrument could produce these two dramatically different sounds.

The banjos produced here are clearly of superior quality, and the two men who run the business are the sort of enthusiasts you would depend upon to hand-craft a pitch-perfect instrument. Since the pair set up the business in 2014, Louis has spent hours and hours tinkering with designs, using archaic machines that you’d usually find in museums to carve and cut the wood, sourcing sycamore from local trees and experimenting with different methods of bending the wood to create the circular heads. They made a pilgrimage to the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in East London to source recycled church bells for the metal tone rings that line each banjo head. “It’s where the Big Ben bells were made,” John says. He draws deeply on his e-cigarette and puffs out a plume of mist. “They’ve been specialising in getting good tonal metal for hundreds of years.”

There are so many variables in making these instruments – from the type of metal (an alloy of 80% copper and 20% tin) to the type of wood. Timber taken from different parts of the tree, explains Louis, produces a different sound. Like a pair of scientists, the two work together in their barn-laboratory to create the perfect banjo formula. “I’ve been making music for five years less than I’ve been breathing,” says John, who grew up playing the violin and took up the banjo as a rebellion. “I’m very familiar with banjos and I know good setups and the sounds that I’m after, and what maybe should be done to get a good sound...”

“That’s totally why it works so well,” finishes Louis. “Because the actual geometry of making them is not a problem for me at all. It’s being able to give them to someone who can play them and put them through their paces, and the subtle changes that need to be made – we need a good player, otherwise it doesn’t happen.”

Even the softness of the wood used for the bridge can affect how the banjo sounds. Louis goes into a detailed explanation of how a softer, more absorbent wood actually makes the strings sound more tinny, rather than tempering them and making them sound more mellow. It is a complicated explanation that encompasses John talking about shouting to a friend underwater in the swimming pool, and Louis talking about whales. But the general gist is that softer wood is less dense and absorbs more of the deep sounds, making the higher tones more audible. The sycamore of the banjo head is sourced locally and then nurtured by Louis – “I have to watch it and season it and all of that” – before he cuts it up and steam-bends it to form the circular ring on which the metal tone rings sits. He holds up a flawlessly smooth wooden ring. “I had to put three bits of wood together to form that. It’s taken me months and months and months to perfect how to do it.” An array of steam-bent circles hangs above one of the work benches, clamped together, ready to be pressed by eight tonnes of pressure in a vice-like press that Louis has built himself.

This is highly labour-intensive work: the pair produce about 10 to 12 banjos a year – exclusively for commissions. In the workshop, there are banjos in different stages of completion: the lustrous green one with inlaid mother-of-pearl dolphins on the fret, a nearly finished open-backed banjo with its polished twisted-wood strut exposed, a new resonator banjo for John, and a “not even cut out of the wooden sheet” electric banjo. Louis holds up a tray of tiny chips of mother of pearl and bone, showing how intricately he carves each piece for a truly personal touch on each instrument. This is an art form, and for a joiner who previously made high-end staircases and windows, it is a departure which he’s espoused with characteristic resourcefulness. When he was first asked to do a bone inlay design, he says, he found a cow skeleton in a field, learned how to de-grease the bones (to stop the oils leaching out into the wood and spoiling it), then sliced them into tiny pieces and began to carve them.

No matter how perfect and carefully handcrafted the instrument, without a musician of John’s experience and passion, the effort would be wasted. Each banjo is a collaboration, from beginning to end – the true test coming when John takes the banjo out of the workshop. “I take it home to where I normally twiddle,” he says. “Mainly, I’m listening for any things that you wouldn’t know are there as you’re building it... you can only tell from trying it out. Louis can get all the frets exactly even, but if there’s one small discrepancy, it will show up when you’re playing. And then you go back and you adjust or refine it. It’s the very small things.”

The breadth and depth of their experience is extraordinary – particularly as it was only two years ago that they secured a £10,000 startup fund in a Dragon’s Den-style pitch. Before that, Louis was a joiner who had made some guitars in his spare time, and John was a respected banjo teacher, musician and lecturer. Both had dreams of making banjos to compete with some of the best of their kind. I’m no expert, but if the sounds that came out of that pretty green banjo are anything
to go by, they are well on their way to becoming the Stradivariuses of the banjo world.