Banjo band made up only of children

Saturday, August 23, 2008

ST. LOUIS -- It's not a common sight -- or sound.

In the basement of Grantwood Village Hall in South County, eight earnest youngsters, each holding a four-stringed banjo, sat as silent as stones. (No random strumming allowed.) Then, at a signal from their leader, Virginia "Ms. Ginny" Luetje, eight banjos sounded.

The STL BandJos are a youth banjo band, made up of children from 7 to 11. Their cuteness quotient is high. None has been playing for more than a few months. All take it seriously.

The children say they're playing because they like the sound, or because it's fun to play in a band, or because of parental encouragement. Luetje and her assistant director, Donald Dempsey, have another motivation: to recruit a new generation of banjo players and preserve a vanishing piece of American musical history.

Few instruments are as instantly recognizable as the banjo, with its round, flat-topped body and long slender neck. The first banjos were developed by African slaves and popularized by minstrel performers in the 1830s. The instrument quickly spread around this country and beyond, and by the late 19th century, was ubiquitous in America's musical life.

Different variations and tunings developed over the years, from five-string banjos to "banjo-ukes." The banjo was adapted to different musical styles as well, from rapid-fire bluegrass (think "Deliverance") to 1920s popular music ("I'm Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover"), from European folk music (the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem's Irish drinking songs) to theater (Stephen Wade's 1980s hit "Banjo Dancing").

The BandJos, like the adults in the St. Louis Banjo Club, play regular four-string banjos. There's one exception to that rule: 7-year-old Louis Meyers, a small, bright-eyed towhead, plays a little banjo-uke that better fits his frame.

Luetje (pronounced LET-she) is a nurse and music therapist by training, and a musician -- she's played piano, sax, bassoon and drums as well as banjo -- by avocation. Luetje has the no-nonsense air of the professional nurse. It's combined with dry humor and obvious affection for the kids, but she's clearly in charge: "OK, we have a director's decision here," she said at one point, "and there's no negotiating."

This particular afternoon, the band was on a mission: to prepare to play a mini-recital for their families and friends in just one week. Time is short. Luetje pulled out an electronic metronome and set a tempo for "The Alley Cat Song," their first number.

"Who are my lead players? Who are my meowers?" she demanded. "All right," she said, as hands went up in the second group, "make it big and bold and funny, on the singing chorus only. What do you do if you don't know the chords at the end? That's right -- air play."

The first try didn't quite take off. "What should happen by the time I say 'Focus'?" asked Luetje. "Right, your fingers should be on the chord."

The group's most experienced members, both 11, picked out the melody; the rest of the band strummed chords. The plan was to play through it once, then add a singer for the second verse.

On the next try, "Alley Cat" wasn't quite feline. With some coaching and a few more repetitions, it started to come together.

"Do we need to do it again?" Luetje inquired. "No," chorused the kids. Luetje continued the catechism: "Have we ever done it the way we want it to be done?" "Yes," said the children. "Have we ever done it the way I want it to be done?" "No," said the children.

They did it again, and it was better: smoother, more together, more musical.

Luetje and Dempsey started the band with a conviction that it was up to them to keep the instrument going. They've given their own volunteer labor and received donations of cash, banjos, sheet music and other equipment from four-string banjo players in St. Louis and around the country.

In the past, adult banjo players found the Banjo Club. But as many other hobbyists have found, it's increasingly difficult to pry kids away from their computer monitors. "We're fortunate to have some parents who are prying them away," said Luetje.

Luetje's goal is to have "a very professional-sounding" performance-ready group of around 20, with another group in training. So far, though, "it has been easier to find banjos than to find kids."

This group could help with the recruitment efforts. Only two members said they wanted to play banjo before learning of the band, but Luetje has had just one dropout since starting last fall.

They've got something to look forward to, too: the Fretted Instrument Guild of America, of which Luetje is vice president, will have its national convention in Peoria, Ill., next summer. The plan is to have the BandJos take part.

"It's boring playing alone," said Ethan, 11. "But when you play together with other people, well, that's really nice."

The STL BandJos, open to children up to age 17, rehearse from 4 to 6 p.m. Thursdays at the Grantwood Village Hall in South County. For more information, call Ginny Luetje at 314-822-9649 or e-mail her at gluetje1aol.com.

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