Chuck Levy

 

Chuck's Modal Medly

Welcome to Banjourneys

Hello Friends,

Welcome to my online music hut.  Take a look around, set a spell, give me a holler.  My Banjourney has led me to all sorts of interesting people an places, from Ohio and Illinois, West Virginia, Virginia, North and South Carolina, to Mars and back, to The Gambia and Senegal, and home to Gainesville, Florida.  Along the way I have picked a bunch of banjos, a few fiddles, and an akonting or two as well, and some stories to tell.  What about you?

Calendar

  • Sep 12 Stephen Foster Old-time Music Weekend White Springs, FL
     

Track List with Times

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1.  Doctor Levy's Walk-Around………………………………………...………2:17
2.  Belecha/Mariam Sajoe……………………………………………..………...2:34         
3.  Sandy Boys……………………………………………………………………......4:20        
4.  Boat's Up the River………………………………………………………...…..3:22        
5.  Late for the Dance……………………………………………………...………2:18    
6.  Mumbeh Suditan…………………………………………………………….....2:07         
7.  I Ride and Old Paint………………………………………………………..….2:51         
8.  Cindy……………………………………………………………………………….....3:00             
9.  Walk into the Parlor/Walk into De Parlor/Grapevine Reel...3:52
10.  Iaydiay/Ohlibilal………………………………………………………….......1:48             
11.  Rock the Cradle Joe………………………………………………..………...3:29    
12.  Chinese Breakdown…………………………………………………...……..1:48         
13.  No Expectations………………………………………………………....……..2:00    
14.  Stephen Foster's Nocturne…………………………………………...…..2:41    
15.  Crow Creek…………………………………………………………….....………3:28    
16.  Sembe………………………………………………………………………….......1:57

Unabridged Tune/Song Description

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1. Doctor Levy's Walk-Around 2:17  Chuck Levy on the cello-banjo tuned an octave low: aDAC#E.  The first thing I did when I got my cello-banjo was to tune it up from G to A.  In G, the strings were too slack for my attack, but in A the music popped! The low growl of the cello reminded me of minstrel banjo.  I dropped the bass string a step and ended with: aDAC#E and soon found myself playing this tune.  It felt so familiar, that I wasn’t sure if it was original, but I think it is.  It is sort of a companion piece to “Levy’s Jig”, another original melody that I recorded on my first CD, “Scratching and Clawing”, so I ended up calling the new tune “Levy’s Walk-Around”.  I am a physician in my day job.  Bob Carlin encouraged me to add the “Doctor” (like Dr. Humphrey’s Jig).  I resisted at first, and then acquiesced.

2. Belecha/Mariam Sajoe 2:34  Chuck Levy on the Banjonting: from 1st string to 3rd (longest to shortest, lowest to highest) tuned to DEC.  Mike Eberle on fiddle tuned GDAE.  The “banjonting” is an instrument that I conceived with my friend John Catches.  John then built the instrument.  I LOVE the akonting, but it is hard to tune.  This becomes particularly important when I either tried to play with others, or to sing. The banjonting has a gourd for a body like both the African and early new world instruments.  Like the African instrument, it has three strings of different lengths (yet of the same .0.90mm diameter of fishing line) arranged with the shortest, highest pitched, in the superior position and the longest, lowest pitched, in the most inferior position when the instrument is held for play.

As my visit to Senegambia was winding down in 2008, I sat down with Daniel Jatta, Remi Diatta, and Ekona Diatta.  They agreed to let me ask them about the music they had been teaching me.  Only Daniel speaks English, so he translated/interpreted for the others. From the interview:

Remi/Ekona:  Belecha is a young beautiful girl and the song is about…she was asked by her boyfriend to come and show to the public that she is in love with him so that nobody else can take her from him.  So he is begging her through this song to come and kneel in front of him so that everyone will know that she is her [his] own…the song is begging her to come and kneel in front of him so that everybody in the community will now know or understand that this lady now belongs to him.
Chuck:  Is her name “Belecha”
Daniel:  Yeah, the lady’s name is “Belecha” but he said that’s what we are saying…a name that was given to her by the society.
Chuck:  And what does it mean?
Ekona: It means somebody who has a very beautiful, round neck… A neck…Most Jolas like if your neck is very beautiful or has a good shape they call you a “conder” a “jomboukon”.  Somebody with a beautiful long neck, because they don’t want necks that are very close to the shoulder so the name they say…”She is a lady with a beautiful neck”

Chuck:  What about Mariam Sajoe ?
Remi: There was a young man who was in love with Mariam Sajoe. Then one day Mariam Sajoe disappointed him and went with another guy.  So this guy started singing that way:  “My beautiful girl named Mariam Sajoe left me but I won’t blame her. I will just have to accept that it is the will of God.  Emitai Kanay.  Emitai Kanay means “it is God who made it,” I cannot blame her or just feel like she has offended me.  It is what god decided that it would happen...


3. Sandy Boys 4:20  Chuck Levy plays a custom Ken Bloom Fretless 6 String:  the bass string is tuned an octave lower than the third string aAEAC#E.  Dave Forbes on fiddle in AEae  I love the precision and drive Dave puts into his music. I feel quite lucky whenever time and fortune allows me to join him in music because playing with Dave allows me to express something near reverence. I associate Sandy Boys with a tune family from West Virginia with 3 major variants (there may be more) and I like ‘em all.

4.  Boats Up the River 3:22 Chuck Levy on a Vega Regent 5-string banjo tuned g#EG#BE.  From Ola Belle Reed as recorded by Art Rosenbaum and featured on Old-Time Banjo in America (Kicking Mule 204, 1978).  Ola Belle had a distinct style of singing and playing that came straight from the heart with pile-driver intensity. She played banjo in an unusual clawhammer variant that included the usual down-picking as well as “back-picking,” an up-picking motion used to pluck the first string with the index finger. During the verses, I use my thumb for melody notes in the second, third and fourth strings, and up-pick with my index finger on the first string while still incorporating a traditional clawhammer down-pick brush-thumb on the off-beats.  For the chorus (where I am not singing), I use a thumb and index two-finger up-picking style.  Feel free to email me for clarification.

5. Late for the Dance 2:18 I Chuck Levy on a custom Ken Bloom Fretless 6 String with the bass string tuned an octave lower than the third string aAEAC#E:  Dave Forbes fiddle, AEae. Late for the Dance springs from Garry Harrison who, according to the notes on the Indian Creek Delta Boys II, learned it from a tape made around 1955 by Roscoe Lance

6. Mumbah Suditan 2:07 Banjonting: from 1st string to 3rd (longest to shortest, lowest to highest) DEC.  Mike Eberle on fiddle, GDAE.

I turned on my digital recorder after our conversation had already started.  At the point the recording begins, I have asked them to tell me about “Mumbah Suditan”.  They tell me that Mumbah is a tough person, cruel person.   The British dominated The Gambia until independence in 1965.

Daniel:  No, when he beats you he bluffs like a British man.
Chuck:  So he struts and he puffs out?
Daniel:  Like a British Soldier

7. Old Paint 2:51  Chuck and Mike on Fiddles:  AEae (I think:  sometime I play this in AEac#)

I believe the first time I heard this was from Loudon Wainwright III’s second LP, entitled “Album II”.  At first it emerged on the banjo, but later the fiddle seemed right.  

8. Cindy 3:00 Chuck Levy on a  custom Ken Bloom Fretless 6 String aGDADE, Dave Forbes on the fiddle.  Cindy is a ubiquitous Southern tune.  The inspiration for this tune for Dave is Norman Edmunds.  The inspiration for me is Dave Forbes.

9. Walk Into the Parlor/Walk Into de Parlor/Grapevine Reel 3:52 Chuck on the Cello-Banjo tuned an octave low: aDAC#E.  I took a banjo-building course at the Augusta Heritage Arts Workshop.  Bob Flesher was the instructor.  One night I heard Bob and Clarke Buehling trade versions of Walk Into the Parlor /Walk Into de Parlor.  This was part of my initial exposure to minstrel music, and it was a wonderful introduction.

10. Iaydiay/Ohlibilal 1:48  Chuck on  Banjonting: from 1st string to 3rd (longest to shortest, lowest to highest) tuned DEC, Mike Eberle on fiddle.

From the interview:

Chuck:  Iadiay?
Remi/Daniel  Iadah is the woman’s name in Jola.  The boyfriend is advising her to take it easy with life.  Not too rough with life.  She has to be with him, She has to take life…a life is not health with us with us…with us, you feel it.  Taking things step-by-step some women, maybe when they have men maybe they want to get everything overnight..  I think that is what the man is trying to tell her.  That life is not just wanting.  You have to move, you have to crawl, walk, and then run.
Daniel:  Most men, some men and some women think like the world is just accidental.  You don’t plan.  You get everything overnight, which is not easy.  This song is about that.

I never got the story on Ohlibilal


11. Rock the Cradle Joe 3:30  Chuck Levy plays a Gold Tone OT-6 tuned  aGDADE.

 I have been playing this tune a long time starting from when Steve Slottow taught it to me in the early 1980s. David Winston (banjo) and Brad Leftwich (fiddle) present a  great version on Southern Clawhammer Banjo, Kicking Mule 213, 1978, produced by none other than the ever-present Bob Carlin.  

The OT-6 is the only mass-produced 6-string banjo available on the market today.  I am proud that Wayne Rogers, the president of Gold Tone, decided to revive this largely forgotten instrument, and included me in its development.  The low bass string encourages exploration of melody and accompaniment in previously inaccessible territory.

12. Chinese Breakdown 1:48 Chuck Levy on a custom Ken Bloom Fretless 6 String aGDADE, Dave Forbes on fiddle on ADae. Chinese Breakdown was recorded by the Scottdale String Band, March 21, 1927 in Atlanta.  Earnest East inspired Dave’s fiddling.  Where Dave goes, I follow.

13. No Expectations 2:00 Chuck Levy on a Gold Tone OT-6 aGDADE, Mike Eberle fiddle GDAE.  A Mick Jagger/Keith Richards composition originally recorded live with open microphones set between the band members for Beggars Banquet, released in 1968 by the Rolling Stones. Mick said “That was the last time I remember Brian really being totally involved in something that was really worth doing”.  Long before I picked up a banjo, I listened to a lot of rock and roll on vinyl.  I was in eighth grade when this was released, and it is now etched in my musical genome, so it is not entirely surprising to see it emerge on the banjo.  Mike, as always, knew exactly what to do with the fiddle. Perhaps something Stephen Foster would have written if he had lived in a different time.

14. Stephen Foster's Nocturne 2:41  Chuck Levy and Mike Eberle on fiddles tuned AEae.  Stephen Foster has an odd connection with north Florida.  He never visited the state.  However, when he was writing “Old Folks at Home” in 1851, he was searching for a name for a river that would fit the lyric.  According to the New York Times, he had rejected the Yazoo and the Pee Dee, when his brother opened up an atlas and offered the Suwannee.  Stephen changed it to “Swanee” thus enshrining the little river that rises in the Okefenokee Swamp, emerging at Fargo, Georgia, and runs through Florida before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico.  The name itself is older. At the time of the Spanish exploration of the area in the 1530s, the river banks were inhabited by the Timucuan people, who called the river “Suwani”, meaning "Echo River".  I wrote this waltz with Stephen in mind, trying to create a tune that would be the plaintive, melancholy, and yet resolute.  I play lead.  Mike goes to work filling in all the rest.

15. Crow Creek 3:28 Chuck Levy plays a custom Ken Bloom Fretless 6-String banjo tuned aAEAC#E.  Dave Forbes plays fiddle tuned AEae. It comes from Illinois fiddler Stella Elam of Brownstown, Bond County.  Dave probably picked this up from the Easy Street Stringband.

16. Sembe 1:58 Chuck Levy on the Banjonting: from 1st string to 3rd (longest to shortest, lowest to highest) tuned DEC.  Mike Eberle on fiddle, GDAE.

Chuck: What is the one “ Oh Sembe, Oh Yako.”
Daniel:  Sembe means he is strong and tall


Original Notes from Banjourneys

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The banjo had been calling to me long before I turned to pick it up and sound it a little over 30 years ago.  I have been grappling with it ever since, first in Ohio and West Virginia, and later in Virginia, North Carolina, Illinois, all before I took up residence in Florida a decade ago. The banjo has gleefully lead me from the beaten path, into festival fields up until dawn, across rutted roads and streams into rural homes to meet elders eager to share, and into communities of good humor and passion for the well placed phrase, the unexpected turn, and the skip of the beat.  Old-time banjo has filled my life with an assortment of colorful characters, eccentrics, and peculiar geniuses.  What seemed odd then feels like old home now.

A series of unlikely and intersecting events led me in Gambia in July 2007 to learn the music of the Jola akonting (ekonting), a West African 3-stringed banjo ancestor. With Daniel Jatta as my guide, Remi and Ekona Jatta as my patient instructors, I held and then played the instrument at once both familiar and incomprehensible.  I returned in 2008 for my second glimpse of the great unknown, and finding myself in Senegal on southern shore of the Cassamance river, in Kanjunka, the birthplace of the ekonting according to the Jola of Mlomp. These currents infuse Banjourneys. 

I am grateful for the friendship and fellowship of Mike Eberle  and David Forbes,  my bringing out the best in us,  and to Wayne Rogers, the Lion of Gold Tone.  Special thanks to Tina Riedel for her uncompromising integrity and extraordinary vision, and to incomparable Roz Chast for jumping in and never looking back.  I am blessed with the support of my wife Sandy Engle Levy, and our totally rad children, Mickey and Lizy. Apology to accidental customers: To those who bought this CD thinking it was about saying “Good Day” in French while traveling, I am sorry.  That would be"Bonjourneys" Unfortunately, once this product has been opened, it cannot be returned.

My Akonting Story

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How I Got Involved with the Akonting (ekonting).

I started playing banjo at age 23, and fiddle a year or two later. When I was 30, I went to medical school, in part because I wanted to learn a trade that would serve people, and allow me some autonomy. While music and medicine compete for time in my life, they also inform one another. As part of my practice, I participate in an arts-in-medicine program. Specifically, this means that once a month, I spend time playing music for patients and staff at the Shands Hospital at the University of Florida.

In 2006, the Center for Arts in Healthcare and Education at the University of Florida began to work with a hospital in Nairobi, Kenya to form a collaborative exchange. As part of this, hospital leaders from Kenya came to visit in Gainesville, and while they were here they visited when I played for patients. It happened to be a good day, when children responded by smiling and dancing, and adults let down their burdens for a moment. Although I was never sure if it was my musicianship or simply the fact that I was a doctor playing for patients, my new African friends were very enthusiastic about my performance, and invited me to come to Nairobi. If I would pay for my flight, they would be happy to house and feed me. This seemed like a rare and amazing offer, so I accepted, applied for and received an Artist Enhancement Grant form the State of Florida to help pay for the ticket, and began my preparations for my trip to East Africa.

Two things happened. First, the band Roustabout came to Florida as guest artists for the Florida State Fiddlers Association. Band member Jim Bollman presented a banjo workshop where he spoke about the akonting, a West African banjo ancestor played clawhammer-style by the Jola people. I had never heard of this before, but with a little bit of work, unearthed articles by Ulf Jagfors and Daniel Jatta that verified Bollamn’s claims Second, the arrangement with the hospital in Nairobi fell through.

So I had a funding to go to Africa, but no destination. In the next few months, I was able get approval to use my grant to visit to The Gambia under the tutelage Daniel Jatta, who introduced me to Ekona Diatta and Remi Diatta, master Jola akonting players. I only speak English. Neither Remi nor Ekona speak English. Yet both were patient and able teachers. It helped that while akonting technique turns out not to be identical to clawhammer, it is mighty similar. By the end of my visit I could play a few tunes. In addition, I forged ties between Gambia’s Royal Victorian Teaching Hospital and the University of Florida that resulted yearly visits by UF faculty, med students, and undergrads.

However, when I returned home to the U.S., and tried to present what I learned, I was unsatisfied. With some reflection, it became obvious that I had not paid enough attention to the singing, which is so integral to Jola music. Therefore I returned to Gambia in 2008 for a second round of instruction, to learn to sing the Jola akonting songs. I met Greg C. Adams there, and together we traveled with our hosts to their home village, Mlonp along the southern shore of the Cassamance River.

At this point, I feel that I have grasped only the beginnings of the music of the Jolas. As I struggle to capture what I am hearing, I have become aware of how often my ingrained assumptions of rhythms and assert themselves, obscuring my ability to really hear what is being played. Yet the pursuit of this music has been immensely rewarding. It has loosened up my approach to the banjo in subtle ways. For example, I find that my thumb playing melodies in places where I would only have used a finger before, shifting the textures and dynamics of music. I feel I have dipped my toe into an ancient, deep river that flows through and links Africa and the Americas. I now see the banjo less as a finished product with discreet traditions, and more as many instruments dispersed across continents, peoples, and rhythms commingling together.

In Banjourneys, I have tried to allow these currents to wander and mix, to weave these various threads into something new and old, here and there. I hope this resonates within you in some manner as this all has with me.

Original About The Music

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Doctor Levy's Walk-Around is a tune that popped out of my head whole for the cello banjo. Belecha/Mariam Sajoe is a medley of Jola songs. According to Daniel, Remi and Ekona, Belecha is a young beautiful girl who is asked by her boyfriend to kneel in front of him in public so that the community will know that she is in love with him so that nobody else can take her from him. According to Remi, Miriam Sajoe is a beautiful woman who disappointed a suitor by keeping company with another man. In the song, the jilted suitor is saying, “My beautiful girl named Miriam Sajoe left me but I won’t blame her. I will just have to accept that it is the will of God.” A number of related tunes exist with the title “Sandy Boys” including a lovely version by Eddn Hammons. Ours is not connected with any specific source. The incomparable Ola Belle Reed inspired Boats Up the River. Late for the Dance springs from Garry Harrison who, according to the notes on the Indian Creek Delta Boys II, learned it from a tape made around 1955 by Roscoe Lance. Mumbah Suditan is about Maumbah, a tough guy who “when he beats you he bluffs like a British Soldier” according to Daniel Jatta. I first heard Old Paint on Loudon Wainwright the III’s second LP. It seemed to settle in on the fiddle, and fits well in both AEac# and AEae. The inspiration for Cindy was Norman Edmunds. Walk into the Parlor/Walk into De Parlor/Grapevine Reel are minstrel melodies from Frank Converse and Tom Biriggs. They are played on the cello banjo, tuned an octave below modern standard at aDAC#E. Iaydiay/Ohlibilal: In Iaydiay, the boyfriend is advising a woman named Iadah “to take it easy with life.” “She has to be with him, taking things step-by-step...” according to Remi as interpreted by Daniel. I am not sure what Ohlibilal is about. Rock the Cradle Joe is a common banjo tune I learned long ago from Steve Slottow. It has morphed over the years, even more so when played on the 6-string banjo. The earliest recording of Chinese Breakdown was by the Scottdale String Band, March 21, 1927 in Atlanta. Earnest East inspired ours. No Expectations is a Mick Jagger/Keith Richards composition recorded live with open microphones set between the band members of the Rolling Stones. Mick said “That was the last time I remember Brian really being totally involved in something that was really worth doing”. I created Stephen Foster’s Nocturne while imagining that remarkable man restless, melancholic, and yet still hopeful near the end of his days. Garry Harrison and the Indian Creek Delta Boys learned Crow Creek from Illinois fiddler Stella Elam of Brownstown, Bond County. Sembe celebrates a man by the same name who is strong and tall.

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