Every year Artistic Director James Keelaghan writes a series of 12 articles for the Owen Sound Sun Times previewing the Summerfolk Music and Crafts Festival
By James Keelaghan
This is a tale about mashing it up.
Fourteen or so years ago, I was playing the Calgary Folk Festival. On the Saturday afternoon there was a workshop that had a loose theme, something about songs of work. The performers were me, Lennie Gallant, and Niamh Parsons — so far a pretty good lineup. There was a fourth performer and, at first glance, it seemed like “one of these things is not like the others”. The fourth was Gil Scott Heron. Gil is considered by many to be the grandfather of rap and hip-hop with a string of hits in the late ’70s and early ’80s —The Revolution Will Not Be Televised and B Movie among them.
I loved his music. I was more than a little thrilled to be appearing on a stage with him. The Calgary Folk Festival was the last place many people would have thought he would be appearing, but that’s what folk festivals are for.
I remember Lennie led off with a song about coal miners in North America. Niamh followed with a song about Welsh coal miners. Next in line, I played Hillcrest Mine. When I’d finished, there was a silence as all eyes turned to Gil — this beat poet, the voice of black urban discontent.
I wondered, “What’s he going to do?”
Gil played a couple of chords on the piano, looked up at the crowd and turned towards the three of us on stage. In that gravelly voice he said, “I’d like to play you a song about black miners in West Virginia.” He played Three Miles Down — “Here come the mine cars; it’s damn near dawn.
Another shift of men, some of my friends, comin’ on.”
You could have heard a pin drop.
My job as Artistic Director to is to try and create that mashup putting styles of music and types of writers together that you wouldn’t think had common ground.
But every now and again, someone brings the mashup with them. This year, that would be Gangstagrass.
In 2006, Rench, a producer in Brooklyn, NY was thinking about fusion. He had a string of successes as a songwriter and a hip-hop producer. Rench also had a love of country music and was hosting country music nights in New York City. Between cuts by Ralph Stanley and others, he began to wonder what would happen if he combined classic bluegrass with hip-hop lyrics and beats. A lot of people might have just chuckled at the idea but he suspected there were a lot of people who had both Jay-Z and Johnny Cash on their playlists.
Sometimes an idea looks impossible on paper. But when it enters the real world, is played masterfully and executed with flair, it suddenly seems obvious. Why had no one thought of this before? It was right in front of us the whole time!
Rench went to work making the preposterous believable. The result is Gangstagrass. They have been bending people’s minds at concert halls and festivals throughout North America and Europe. You’d think you’d have a lot of bent out of shape people in both the bluegrass and the hip-hop camps, but the band rose to number 2 on the Billboard bluegrass charts this May with standing room crowds in clubs that have never even entertained the notion of a banjo on stage.
I think it works because it shreds our preconceptions and makes us view each genre in a new light. Blogger Kent Newsome said that his first listening single-handedly changed his musical genome. Or maybe it works because it is reuniting older and newer traditions. The banjo, after all, is black culture’s gift to bluegrass and country music. In Gangstagrass, the banjo meets modern urban black culture and the result is a unique musical mashup.
It also works because the musicianship and showmanship are excellent. The band is a moveable feast. Various players move in and out of the roster, but every player is top notch. Rench is the constant in the equation.
Like Quincy Jones, I don’t believe there are types of music, there is only music. I’d like to believe that Rench believes the same thing, and that somewhere, Gil Scott Heron is smiling.
Gangstagrass will be with us at Summerfolk this year on Saturday for a daytime workshop and an evening mainstage show. They’ll also close out the festival on Sunday night with Union Duke at the Summerfolk Farewell in the Down by the Bay tent at 9 PM. You can find out all you need to know about the Summerfolk Music and Crafts Festival at summerfolk.org.