I build banzas- the ancestor of the modern banjo with a gourd sound chamber
Welcome to Jaybirdbanjo.com! My name is Jason Smith. I am a musician from Clinton, Mississippi specializing in Banza (gourd banjo) construction and performance. The banza is the African gourd ancestor of the modern banjo. I learned to build and play banzas from the late Scott Didlake, a pioneer in gourd banjo design and building. Look around and listen. Click to visit my stores on ebay and etsy. Thanks for visiting and I hope to hear from you very soon!
Listen to the great musician Rob MacKillop of Scotland play the music of J.S. Bach on a tenor banza:
Buy a Banza Today from my Etsy store!
“Twas a gourd, three string’d, and an old pine stick;
but when he hit it he made it speak.”
This quote is a line from an old song called Picayune Butler’s Comin to Town. Picayune Butler was a famous banjo player from New Orleans in the 19th century. Scott loved to refer to this song especially since it made mention of a gourd banjo and a pine neck. Mississippi heart pine is a wonderful wood to build banzas with. It is the old inner portion of the majestic trees which were so prevalent in the southern U.S. All of the old trees were cut down, so the wood now comes from old buildings around the area. I build many banzas with this heart pine and am always looking for new “finds”.
About Scott Didlake
This is a very nice obituary written in The Five Stringer (newsletter of the American Banjo Fraternity):
“Scott Didlake of Jackson, Mississippi died on October 25, 1994 at the age of 46. He was born in Crystal Springs, Mississippi on January 3, 1948.
Although his parents did not play musical instruments, his was a very musical family and many of his relatives were muscicians. One great uncle of his had a banjo under his bed that the young Scott was forbidden to touch, but always did. He actually began playing and singing and knew a lot of folk music.
After graduating from Crystal Springs High School he attended Mississippi College in Clinton, Miss. and Millsaps College in Jackson. In 1969 he moved to Toronto, Canada. He worked mainly in the arts and was interested in making experimental/educational movies. In Toronto he met William Miles who had been a banjoist, musician, and teacher since the early 1890′s. Scott, along with several other younger players, took classic banjo lessons from Mr. Miles. They were all members of the Miles Metro (Toronto) band. The band occasionally performed in the Toronto area, including a performance at the Mariposa festival. Scott once took second prize at a primarily folk/bluegrass banjo contest playing a Morley solo. Scott felt that Mr. Miles was a great influence on his life. They always enjoyed discussing music, the banjo, and politics. It was a great loss to him when Mr. Miles died in June 1979 at age 100.
Scott joined the ABF in 1975 and attended the May 1977 and May 1978 rallies. Your editors visited with him and other Toronto banjoists several times a year. Scott had a deep interest in the banjo and was always intrigued about the physical nature of the instrument.
In late 1981 Scott moved back to Mississippi. He began working with computers and high tech communication. On August 26, 1983 he married Carrie Saxton. Living in Mississippi he became more interested in older banjo music. Scott began studying old minstrel music and trying to get closer to the earliest African and African-American “banjos”. He began investigating the problems associated with making gourd banjos. He discovered that it was very difficult go get hard calabash gourds of the proper shape and size. He began growing his gourds with the help of the Truck Crops Experiment Station in Crystal Springs– a sort of high tech, scientific approach to what seems to be a low tech product. He also discovered that it takes a great deal of sophistication to build a well-playing gourd banjo. As Scott once commented, “gourds don’t like to grow to five-string size.” And, “you don’t make a banza, you grow one.” Scott applied his artistic abilities to the problem and began to produce beautiful banzas. John Bernunzio described these as “Cremona quality gourd banjos.” Scott felt he was reaching back as “an apprentice to ghosts,” relearning lost technology to get to the fusion of the instruments and music, African and European, that occurred in the ante-bellum South and which, incidentally, also has become the heart of American jazz, pop, and rock music. He called his enterprise Kalenda Banza. He also experimented with three and four string banzas and found that rock musicians liked them for their unusual sound and resonance.
Scott participated in many community and cultural events giving banza programs at schools and museums. Quite a few museums have purchased his instruments and Sule Greg Wilson, a folklorist at the Smithsonian, made special arrangements with Scott, who donated an instrument to our national museum. Scott and his banzas are featured in Phyllis George’s 1993 book Arts in America.
Scott had been ill for a few years when in the late winter of 1994 he was diagnosed as having amytropic lateral sclerosis, an incurable, fatal degenerative nerve disease. Scott, in spite of the bleak prognosis and progressively losing the use of his limbs, remained in good spirits. He had tremendous support from Carrie and many friends. Although unable to work at making instruments, he had several apprentices and worked with them to pass along all his hard-earned knowledge about growing and crafting his beloved banzas. We are glad to say that the business is being carried on an Kalenda banjos are being made and are available.
Scott died at home, peacefully, in the arms of his, surrounded by love and friends.
Our condolences are extended to Carrie, to his mother Maggie Didlake, to his brother Johnny Sneedon and to his many friends and admirers. Scott was a remarkable person of great energy, passion, talent, and love. We will miss him. ”
I had the good fortune of going to the Tennesse Banjo Institute with Scott in 1992. This is, to my knowledge, the largest gathering of banjo players from all over the world. Here is an excerpt from one of Scott’s presentations at this festival. Clarke Buehling and Scott were good friends and Scott always said Clarke planted the seed in his head of building gourd banjos.
Scott built a wonderful banza for his friend John Hartford. Here is a great picture of the two at John’s home followed by a video of John playing the banza: