Rob MacKillop – Classic Banjo BanjoCrazy.com Exclusive
Interview with Rob MacKillop by Paul Roberts 8/24/10
Rob MacKillop from Edinburgh, Scotland has played historical guitars and lutes for many years. He’s also a great blues guitarist and plays other stringed instruments. His current passion is 4 and 5-string banjos. Besides being a consummate player, Rob takes an in-depth scholarly approach to everything he does. Rob has many CD's to his credit and has done extensive music research, teaching and writing about the music that captivates him.
Mel Bay will be publishing six new books by Rob: four ukulele books and two banjo books. Centerstream will publish “The Scottish Guitar,” another of his books. Each of these seven books will include a CD by Rob, who also has a new CD coming out of 17th-century Scottish music on baroque guitar and viol.
Banjo-wise, Rob been exploring all sorts of styles: Early American Classic Banjo, The Development of Fingerstyle Banjo Technique in the 19th Century, Scottish Tenor Banjo, and his own take on bluegrass. His website www.ClassicBanjoRM.com includes examples of his fine music and a free pdf of 25 tunes culled from Scottish lute manuscripts of the 17th century, which he plays on tenor banjo.
An Early Music specialist with eight CD’s a lifetime of performing, academic essays and numerous other musical accomplishments to his name, Rob is now bringing his amazing musical expertise to the banjo as he seeks out early instruments, repertoire and techniques.
There’s so much more to be said about Rob MacKillop - for instance top composers have written works for him and he composes new works himself. He's a man whose musical depth and dedication is a true inspiration. Having played banjos for a relatively short period of time, Rob's contribution to banjo music is already quite significant and is growing all the time. I hope you enjoy my interview with Rob MacKillop.
I'd like to start by finding out about some of your early musical experiences.
Rob MacKillop :
I'm Scottish. I was born in Dundee in 1959. My father was an amateur player of Scottish traditional tunes on the accordion and jazz on the saxophone, while my mother played a little piano. We had parties with the relatives - a large number of them - quite often, where everyone had to do their turn.
What else do you remember about do you remember about these family musical gatherings and how they influenced you?
Well, we didn't have a TV, so we made our own entertainment. I have three sisters, and we would put on 'productions', sing a song, act out our own mini play, usually half improvised. Some of the local kids would join in. Once practiced, we would perform at the family parties, where aunties and uncles, grannies, etc, would congregate, with lots of food, drink and laughter. Well, that's how I remember it. I even worked up a magic trick or two. There was a lot of dancing. Someone would start singing and we'd all stand in a circle clapping rhythmically. We'd then dance around while someone stood in the middle doing a solo dance or song. It was all very amateur and great fun. Later we got a cheap record player with some Jimmy Shand accordion tunes, and that replaced or augmented the singing. It's all getting a bit hazy I have to say. I heard a lot of traditional folk songs and ballads from my mother and aunties. My father was banned from singing as he was so awful, and I have inherited his talent! I really cannot sing a single note in tune. I know what it is meant to be, but my voice just doesn't connect with my ears.
Like any teenager, I went through a period of being embarrassed about it all, and started looking for something more cool. But now I am over 50 years of age, I look back with great affection for my family during that period. I didn't realise it at the time but I was learning very important lessons about heritage, tradition and sharing. I even remember performing 'Camptown Races' on the ukulele, with everyone joining in! It was all so natural that I just cannot bear to be at a 'put on' 'folk' event, with an audience. It is just not the way it is meant to be.
It sounds like you're implying that the folk tradition, as you experienced it, is based on participation, not performance. Do you feel that the conveyance of folk music through performance somehow diminishes it?
The key phrase is 'how I experienced it'. I would never criticize anyone for trying to play music on any level. I can only say in my experience, a concert of what we did in our family could not be reproduced in any way to an audience.
What was your first instrument?
My first instrument was the ukulele, a Gretsch, brought over from San Francisco by my father's father, who had moved to the States 20 years before. I taught myself with the Mel Bay 'Fun With' book, which gave me an early appreciation of a certain aspect of American folk music.
In my teens, I discovered Muddy Waters, Johnny Winter (their 'Hard Again' collaboration is still a favorite) and taught myself blues guitar by playing along with the records, which was great for ear training. In my twenties I discovered Andres Segovia and Bach, and I taught myself classical guitar, later going to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music in Glasgow, where I won a scholarship to study in Venice. While there I had an accident while cutting bread - I chopped off the tip of my middle finger, left hand. I was told I would never play again, so I turned to research. I spent a year studying the Scottish lute repertoire for which some 500 pieces survive from the 17th century, mainly traditional tunes such as 'Flowers of the Forest' and 'Auld Lang Syne'. After a year the feeling returned to my finger. I said goodbye to the classical guitar and swapped it for a lute. I recorded eight CDs of early Scottish music for lute, cittern and 'guittar' (the mis-named English Guitar!). I toured Europe and went as far as Japan. I was given a Churchill Fellowship Award for my studies into Scottish medieval music, and the grant allowed me to study Sufi music in Turkey and Morocco. 9/11 put an end to that trip...
About seven years ago, I gave up performing and touring, and took a job as a Library Assistant at a small university in Edinburgh. I soon got bored with that, and gave a proposal to the Principal for a post of Musician In Residence, which I held for five years. I was in charge of all the musical activities bringing staff and students together - there were no music students, mainly nurses, medical staff, etc - and created several ensembles running from a medieval group to a Jazz Band, and also a traditional music group playing Scots, Irish and American OT tunes. I also taught improvisation concepts to Music Therapy students. Sadly, that job came to an end a short while ago due to 'the economic downturn'. I am now teaching privately.
So where is the banjo in all of this?
Well, 18 months or so ago I gave in to my long-time hankering for a banjo, but my knowledge of the banjo was very limited. In Scotland, we hear Irish tenor playing and Bluegrass, but I wasn't passionate enough about those styles to really get pulled in, which is why I had hesitated for so long. Then I discovered the ning minstrel banjo site (http://minstrelbanjo.ning.com/) and discovered the joy of low tunings and gut strings (although most people play with nylgut). I instinctively felt this was worth looking into, and it resonated strongly with the Scottish lute music I had spent so many years playing. From there, I was invited to the ning classic-banjo site (http://classic-banjo.ning.com/) and within a week I had my first banjo. I became obsessed! A week or two later I uploaded my first video, which went down well with the more experienced players, and through their encouragement I kept going...and haven't stopped.
I presently have over 60 videos and website (www.ClassicBanjoRM.com) devoted to the instrument. I recorded two CDs for editions, which Mel Bay will be releasing later this year or early 2011: The Early American Parlor Banjo, and The Early Irish-American Banjo.
You obviously bring a lot of your classical training and experience to your banjo playing. What is your perspective on this crossover from your lute family instruments to your approach to banjo family instruments?
As for dynamics, just look at the table of terms Converse supplies after the Contents of his Analytical Banjo Method of 1887 - every dynamic possible on the instrument. Remember, this was a dynamic but essentially experimental period in the banjo's history, and players like Converse were pushing the instrument to its limit in the same way the instrument makers like Stewart and Fairbanks were pushing the design of the instrument to extremes.
So, I would say that for the period 1860 to 1890 I already had the technique outlined in the tutors. It was only when I was playing music from 1900 onwards that I started reading a few dissenting comments: that I was too lyrical, the sound I made too mellifluous and nothing like the early banjo recordings, etc. To a certain extent, their protestations were justifiable. The recordings from the early decades of the 20th century are almost devoid of any sentimentality, are vibrant, often quite aggressive, and while I can admire the playing, these are not recordings I listen to often. However, I liked much of the music, and especially enjoyed working through the Emile Grimshaw exercises from his, 'How To Excel On The Banjo' (see www.ClassicBanjoRM/studies). It is thought that much of the aggressive sound of those pioneering recordings is down to the way they were recorded. It is known that such luminaries as Cammeyer played gently privately, but had to belt it out for concerts and recordings. Now, modern recording techniques and concert PA systems have developed somewhat, so I believe I am closer maybe to the way some of these players played to themselves while alone or with a few friends. So, despite the protestations I will continue to play the early 20th century music as I see fit. That said, however, I feel most kinship with the earlier period from 1860 to 1890.
Being a Scot, I have not been raised in the English banjo tradition, or in any of the varieties of American banjo traditions. This could be seen as both a negative and a positive thing. Some people take exception to 'their' music being played differently (I've had a few abusive emails telling me I can't play the banjo at all and am ruining the culture), but thankfully I've had many, many more emails from other players saying I have inspired them to look again at this historical repertoire. But the emails I treasure most are from those who have been inspired by my videos to actually go and buy their first banjo. For my own part, I remain a student of the instrument, learning something about it every day.
Visit Rob's website www.ClassicBanjoRM.com
View Rob's YouTube channel http://www.youtube.com/user/classicbanjoRM#g/u