Banjoman Bruce: His strings sing

Somehow through all my years of music listening and appreciation, the banjo has never really struck my fancy. However, the lack of intriguing musicentric events this past weekend left me with two options: see something old and familiar, or see something new and educational. I opted for the latter and found myself at the Prism Coffeehouse for the fourth in a series of 10 banjo classes/performances.

The series chronicles the evolution of the banjo from its roots in Africa through its travels in Europe and the Americas– past and present. The banjo can provide rhythm and melody ranging from deep hollow bass sounds to ethereal higher notes that tell stories about people ranging from African tribesmen, Celtic highlanders, and slaves to batteaux boatmen... and the gentlemen I heard play at the Prism Coffeehouse on October 10.

The pity I felt for all people, regardless of their musical tastes, who were not in attendance, lasted only briefly, for I was quickly mesmerized by the technique so dazzlingly on display.

Brent Van Deverer played two songs. His peaceful stoicism and song choice created a very relaxed atmosphere, and the warm response he received made me appreciate the pleasures of the Prism's intimate quarters.

Course instructor Joe Ayers elaborated on the passage of the banjo and banjo music through almost every continent, verbally and musically illustrating the variation of the influences of all the places this instrument has traveled; from the long drawn-out notes of the slave field selection to the speed-picking of 20th century Appalachia.

It was all there. Every genre of modern music could find roots in the banjo. After a little more audience education, the Prism and The Virginia Folklife Program at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities presented Bruce Molsky.

Molsky, a New Yorker, is indeed a master, but the feeling I got from the banjo/bluegrass community was that no one really overvalues one particular player; rather, they celebrate every musician's contribution to keeping this instrument alive.

It took obvious willpower for the audience not to noisily enjoy the music by tapping feet and clapping hands. Occasionally the irresistible foot tapping got loud enough to distract from the music, but it was always on beat.