Brendon Bussy

Rant no.1: There’s that pause and then (dah dah dah) The Other

Posted in Mandolin, New Old Old New by Brendon Bussy on February 5, 2010

Often I’ve just finished a performance or I’m somewhere at a social gathering talking music and someone will ask me:  “What instrument do you play?”.

A simple question, yet I hesitate. Because I know that trouble is ahead. It goes like this:

1) my answer:  “I play the mandolin.”

2) questioner pauses

3) questioner hesitates, then:  “Wow [or similar expression] that’s so cool”

4) I wait in (dark) anticipation

5) questioner again:  “You know, my grandad played the banjo”

6) me:  “Great” except I’m thinking:  “why do I have to know this ?!!!”

Every time.

Now you might think me unfriendly or even ungenerous to think such thoughts.  After all the banjo is a fine instrument, in fact I know and have been friends with banjo players.  My dad played the banjo.  I’ve even considered playing the banjo and am not like those other mandolin players who call the banjo ‘an instrument of mass destruction’ (banjos are LOUD).  But I don’t play the banjo. I play the mandolin.

And surely this questioner is only trying to be friendly, to show an interest in a field which they know very little about?

My concern is not with the banjo or the questioner.  My concern is with being associated with ‘The Other’.

For those of you familiar with Simone De Beauvoir,  ‘The Other’ is the least favoured i.e. women.  However I don’t intend here to embark on a banjos vs mandolins gender analysis. Or banjoists vs mandolinists.

But don’t breath a sigh of relief.  Instead I intend to draw your attention (in a hard hitting manner) to the universal understanding of musical instrument categories which exist in society.  Or at least in my society, here in South Africa.

First there are the instruments we know and love:  The Guitar.  The Keyboard.  The Drums.  Also the Piano (a type of keyboard) and the Bass (a different kind of guitar).

Then we have… The Other.  Those ‘other things’ people play.  Similar to guitars, similar to keyboards and (I guess) to drums too.  They have names like ‘Sitar’, ‘Digeridoo’, ‘Ukelele’ and of course ‘Mandolin’ and ‘Banjo’. These instruments come from far away and are not often heard on the radio.  Except in ads for travel promotions.  Some are more familiar, for example the ‘Violin’, this one is familiar because it’s often used in the sad bits.

In their ‘Otherness’ they are lumped into a common category despite the fact that they might come from completely different parts of the world, be used for unique kinds of music and function in a unique manner.  And this is why I feel perplexed when someone implies (even if innocently), that my mandolin should have anything do with banjos.

Now I might be (rightly) accused of using sarcasm to enforce an argument or (wrongly) of a hatred for ‘conventional’ instruments (I have had  good friends who play the guitar!), but I do feel it important that there be better common knowledge of those ‘other’ instruments.

If only to spare my delicate Mandolin sensibility.

10 Responses

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  1. kitty said, on February 6, 2010 at 8:52 am

    Hi Brendon
    I think this blog is a wonderful way for me to keep up with what going on in your world especiailly when my world getting a bit busy.
    I can understand the pain of having to explain your instrument and then having people get it wrong. I am always asked what kind of art I do and then I say print making and think to myself that is an over simplification of what i do.
    I suppose the question is… Is it important for a non muscian to get the technical specifics of names right? Personally I am terrible with names and that does not mean I do not have an interest in the person or what they are do. It just means I remember the broader issues of what the themes of the last musical event was about rather than technical specifics. I suppose you could say I have a macro view on the world instead of a micro view. I am interested in whether you use roads or gravestones to make your music. Maybe it’s better just to talk about the weather instead.

    • Brendon Bussy said, on February 8, 2010 at 11:19 pm

      Kitty: you’re right – you don’t need to know the technical specifics to enjoy the event, in this case the music. I guess I’m just letting off steam about a point which can at times irritate me. The thing I find really weird is that it’s the banjo that I always get confused with and that the question is almost always phrased the same! And the weird thing is that musicians I correspond with in the states have a very similar experience.

      And I remember being asked, when I was studying visual art, if I worked in oils. Which I always found to be a difficult question to answer.

      But the broader issue for me is the lack in South Africa of knowledge and development of the tools which we use for working in the arts.

      When I studied visual art I always struggled getting my hands on raw materials e.g. pigments so that I could experiment with making tempera etc. When I enquired I was always only shown the finished available product i.e. the paint in the tube which had been imported from an overseas manufacturer.

      I strongly believe that the tools that we use influence the way that we work. And that more local development (and research and manufacture) will not only bring prices down, but will also ultimately give us more input into the way that we make art.
      And this goes for paint, mandolins, software etc.

      If you were able to walk into a South African music store and buy a locally made mandolin, or for that matter, guitar or set of drums, which at present you can’t, I believe this would be an indicator of a very different local music scene.
      [I’m going to be writing a lot more about this later]

      • kitty said, on February 9, 2010 at 8:12 am

        I am going to keep it in the music sphere otherwise all the possibilities get far to confusing. I do understand what you mean when you say the technical making of a medium can bring about a deeper understanding of it, which could spark of creative idea’s of how to use it.

        There is something very magical about having the knowledge of how to make music out of raw materials that look like they have no potential for sound or beauty. So I am in agreement that getting down to the building block is a great way of really getting to know a medium and see potential for new attachments/ amendments.

        Have you every tried taking your mandolin apart and put it back together again? It would probably sound very different after that experience.
        Or are you more interested in experimenting with it in it’s complete state? I suppose what I am trying to say is things can always be taken apart and put together and that is what some people are interested in. Other people experiment with the instrument in it complete state. Both create different results, I do think it takes more time and energy to make something from scratch and that dedication will probably reflect in the musical output.

      • Brendon Bussy said, on February 9, 2010 at 10:18 am

        Taking apart and putting back together: you’re right – this can be inspirational. I’ve taken quite a few things apart but not my mandolin. Or at least not completely. Probably the main reason is that mandolins in South Africa are so rare and I don’t have many, really only two which comes down to one that I use a lot and a spare. My spare is my spare at the moment because it has much wear and tear and is in dire need of a service. However the ‘out of order’ state of this mandolin somehow frees me up conceptually. For example, it’s not possible to play completely in tune on it, so I often use it to perform free improve type music.

        And I have, out of necessity, had to learn a great deal about mandolins as there are very few instrument technicians in SA willing to work on mandolins. So I’ve given a shot at doing a few things, for example making mandolin bridges. And in the process have gotten interested in sound physics and the way in which we listen to sound.

        In particular, the way in which we are ‘taught’ to listen. For example, how people growing up in different cultures become accustomed at a very early age to certain systems of music which can differ a great deal from what we are used to in the ‘western’ world. This has strong connections to spoken language, for example native speakers of oriental languages have a higher incidence of ‘perfect pitch’ than native speakers of non oriental languages. Perfect pitch is the ability to remember a note as a specific pitch or frequency. This ability may be related to the ‘melodic’ nature of oriental languages i.e. more variations in pitch.

        In the ‘west’ we’ve been taught to listen using a system which was perfected as recently as the beginning of the 19th century. The system we use to tune instruments wasn’t an entirely organic process. Someone actually sat down and worked it out. And this system becomes hard wired as a child grows up listening to it.

        But…sorry I seem to have gone into lecture mode 🙂 To go back to your thoughts re: creativity with complete or incomplete/deconstructed instruments. Both are valid approaches. And there are overlaps. In that I believe you can take an instrument apart in a non physical way as well. By trying to understand how something works – physically and conceptually.

        082 4068140

  2. heidi said, on February 7, 2010 at 7:49 pm

    Hi there
    Kitty has it totally corregt, those poor people are sitting adoringly at the feet of an artist and are trying desperately to make conversation to spend a little time with you. Next time reply with ” Oh that’s wonderful, what else did he play, for how long did he play” or better still “great my father also played a banjo but I play the mandolin which is . . .” and then make up something new and “interesting” every time or boring if you want to get rid of them. or “great do you also play the banjo?”

    • Brendon Bussy said, on February 8, 2010 at 11:25 pm

      Oooh, I love the idea of people sitting at my feet listening and adoring 🙂

      But you’re right, I should try to be polite … and I do. But…. it can just be very weird sometimes when I can hear the question coming. Really uncanny.

  3. phiaudio said, on December 15, 2010 at 11:16 am

    Would you teach me how to play the banjo?

    • brendon said, on December 17, 2010 at 1:15 pm

      @phi: Afraid not, but I could show you how to operate an angle grinder. Same effect, but more to the point 😉

  4. Stuart said, on December 21, 2010 at 12:31 pm

    Brendon now that you have explained your position I have one comment – my grandmother played the uke !

    • brendon said, on December 21, 2010 at 4:44 pm

      I am (politely) speechless 😉

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