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From THE SAVANNAH MORNING NEWS, September 16th 2007

Norfolk’s Ambassador of Folk


Banjo weekend: Build it, and they will strum

Bob Zentz plays a strumstick after a workshop Saturday at the Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum. (Photo by Rexanna Lester for the Savannah Morning News) 

With a cookie tin, a broom handle, weedwhacker string and a little hardware, we ambitiously set to work.

Master instrument crafts-men? Maybe not. But the akontings and banjos we built Saturday at the Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum did produce sounds that closely resembled music.

We were "building for the music like a miner digs for gold," Bob Zentz had sung at his Friday performance on banjos, guitars, concertinas and accordions - or, as they're sometimes called, stomach Steinways.

Museum Executive Director Tony Pizzo had assembled the akonting and banjo kits and led us through the construction process.

With the help of Google and YouTube, he has researched the West African akonting that might be the precursor to the American banjo. Since about 2000, the information pool has been expanding, Pizzo said.

Zentz had lined up a collection of gourd, tin and wooden instruments for his Saturday night performance and discussion of the history of the banjo.

This musician from Norfolk, Va., is generous with his sounds as a teacher and a performer. Unlike the introduction at most concerts, he says: "Bring a recorder, so you can hear the sounds and practice later."

Hammers and sanders created much of the sound as the instruments came together Saturday afternoon. Box cutters and glue quietly did their part.

"The duct tape is only a salute to post-industrial society," Pizzo said.

Tim Rutherford, who has put together other instruments, came to the rescue of a couple of us who were more instrumentally challenged. For the third time, he patiently demonstrated how to tie the strings.

Akontings are informal instruments, traditionally made by the players, Pizzo said, often by African palm-wine tappers and rice cultivators who would dance and drink after work.

They were warned away from the river, where they were told devils would come and carry people away, Pizzo said.

The Jola are credited with developing the akonting.

West Africa has a rich history of plucked and bowed string instruments in addition to winds and drums. The banjo in America has been the instrument that told stories from black men, mountain men and some women in high society.

In 1894, Mary Cassatt painted two females in "The Banjo Lesson."

Brown University and Georgetown University had men's banjo clubs.

These manufactured types branched off from ones made from cheese and cigar boxes with parts that some-times included the tops of coffee cans.

Zentz sings of filling the wood with song and finding the songs embedded in the wood.

"Home-grown banjos, what a nice thing," he said.

Pizzo looked to the future.

"We're planning to make harpsichords out of milk cartons and spare auto parts," he said.

E-mail Rexanna at rexannalester@comcast.net or send regular mail to 201 Battery Way, Savannah, GA 31410. By telephone: 912-897-0641.


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