The Old-Time Herald Volume 12, Number 4

Out of His Gourd on Yonge Street: Jeff Menzies — Gourd Banjo Maker
By Christian Wig
Photo by Michelle Menzies

What is it about the gourd banjo that draws musicians to it? Is it the raw growl of fingers on gut strings; the spherical shape of the calabash and the smoothness of its outer skin; the organic nature of it’s creative process? Or is it a connection to the music of the African slaves who brought it to the new world  some 400 years ago? Even if your choice of strings is synthetic, the mystique is still palpable. It is all of these and more to Toronto-area artist and banjo maker Jeff Menzies. “It’s also the sculptural nature of the gourd banjo that attracts me to it. It appeals to my sculptural sensibilities and acts as a symbolic reference for my heritage.”

Whatever the attractions, Jeff is one of a select group of banjo makers who have come forward to satisfy the demand of the many banjo players who have recently become captivated by the call of the gourd. Technically Jeff makes banjos from gourds which grow on vines from the ground. Calabash, from which many of these banjos were historically made, grow on trees native to West Africa and the West Indies. Recently, though, Jeff has formed a business relationship with a man from Trinidad to supply him with calabash. Soon he will have another weapon in his arsenal, the capacity to fashion historically authentic banjos in addition to the two hundred or so he has already made.

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