Fort Worth’s first live African-American Roots music festival is on stage this weekend at Southside Preservation Hall. Brandi Waller-Pace created the festival to reclaim a tradition: country fiddles, banjos, jug band — they’re all part of African-American traditions.
Even for her, it was a discovery – that as a black woman playing the banjo, it was her music.
“That’s because growing up and being musically trained,” Waller-Pace said, “a lot of what teachers considered folk music or Appalachian, things associated with the banjo, were coded or explicitly called white.”
The banjo began as an African instrument, a string gourd. Enslaved Africans taught white Americans how to make banjos, how to play them. And then Irish immigrants from Appalachia took it over – and from there we get its association with a white, ancient, woodsy, mountain sound.
One of the main reasons these instruments fell out of favor with African Americans, Waller-Pace said, was what followed: the minstrel show. The minstrel show dominated American popular culture in the second half of the 19th century, pairing banjos and fiddles with racist caricatures.
Waller-Pace, 38, said growing up she encountered “traces” of black folk music. But it was when she taught music at Fort Worth ISD for ten years that things came together. She learned the banjo, researched traditional folk tunes.
FWAAM Fest 2021
And she realized how current music education programs downplay African-American influences. So she developed the nonprofit, Decolonizing the Music Room, to promote roots music in schools.
And that led her to create the Fort Worth African-American Roots Music Festival. (It started last year as a virtual event – due to COVID. This year is the first time it will be live, on stage).
“I tend to be more of a spacemaker,” Waller-Pace said. “I tend to want to get out of systems and push the needle from the outside. And so I thought, you know what? I can create a space – here.”
“Roots music” – from folk to early blues to early acoustic jazz – has often been referred to as “old times”. Which means he wasn’t just considered ‘white’. From the first vinyl recordings, the music industry also treated it as a relic. It was already “passed”.
“‘Old time’ is a label designation that was coined in the 1920s,” Waller-Pace said. “And so you’ll hear ‘old time’, you’ll hear ‘trad’ for traditional, you’ll hear string orchestra, all that stuff. But those things aren’t frozen in time.”
Benjamin Hunter & Joe Seamons with Phil Wiggins – Go German [Live at WAMU’s Bluegrass Country]
Benjamin Hunter is a multi-instrumentalist from Seattle who will play at the Fort Worth festival. He is aware that some people see this kind of music as disconnected from what is new and popular these days. We listen to dance pieces, he plays the violin.
But Hunter says roots music is not a museum piece. He’s not after historic preservation or the retro trend.
“You trace the lineage and you can go back as far as you want,” Hunter said, “but this music is always forward looking. We like to call this music ‘mainstream’, but hip-hop is of the folk music. techno – it’s folk music. It’s a form of music that served a purpose – for people to come together – and party.”
Hunter points to the nightclub confrontations that have long been a factor in black music-making: the jam sessions that pushed jazz forward, the toasts and rap battles that created hip-hop.
Dr. Dena Jennings is a practicing physician in Virginia. She is also a leading voice for – and the creator of – the calabash banjo. She started the Afrolachian On-Time Music Gathering to spread the word.
“Black roots music is all about collaboration,” she said. “It’s about coming together and collaborating.”
For Dr. Jennings, it is by coming together that these black roots evolve. And the Fort Worth festival is one of a series of such events – it will even include Junious Brickhouse, a dancer-choreographer known for his fusion of hip-hop and traditional dance.
Junious Brickhouse at Augusta American Vernacular Dance Week
Brandi Waller-Pace said “that’s what’s especially strong for me about this music – being able to, you know, sit in a circle and make music. It’s really, really joyful to be able to have something like that as part of black music.”
Waller-Pace herself attended one of the first such festivals: the Black Banjo Gathering in North Carolina in 2005.
Three other musicians present became the Carolina Chocolate Drops. They are probably the best known of what might be called “contemporary new roots” groups. The Chocolate Drops won a Grammy Award and contributed to the soundtrack of The hunger Games, with the song “Daughter’s Lament”.
It seems that so-called “old school” black music can find new chords.
The Fort Worth Roots African-American Music Festival begins at noon, Saturday, March 19, at Southside Preservation Hall, 1519 Lipscomb Street, Fort Worth.
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