More From China
Banjo Connections -- by Jim Matthews

It seems as though I learned as much about China after I returned home as I did when I was there. This was largely from comparing notes with others who have been there…or know people who have been there…or know people who read about people who have been there…or something else like that. But sharing information in this manner is what really brings things into focus. That’s the theory behind “Banjo Connections.”

Through such discussions with several SBB members, including Peggy Lewis, Ellen Doerner, and a few others, I learned that Kurt Abell performed on the ruan at the recent Sacramento FIGA convention. The ruan is also known as the moon guitar, moon harp, or chong wot. It looks like a banjo…sort of. I also learned that Kurt recently was on tour performing in Taiwan, with his well-known band, Cell Block Seven (actually there are eight of them, but who’s counting). So I decided to e-mail Kurt and see what he knew about the ruan, and to find out if he thought this Chinese instrument was as similar to the American Banjo as I observed it to be. Kurt replied that he bought one while in Taiwan, and learned to play it in time for one of his band’s concerts there. As I said in my last edition of this column, the ruan can be tuned CGDA, but that tuning is reportedly used by those with previous experience on the tenor banjo. Kurt found that the plectrum tuning would not work for him. He reports that according to Taiwanese musicians, the correct tuning is GDGD, which he used in his performance. The GDGD tuning fits better with the common Chinese pentatonic scale. He stayed up all night practicing the new turning, as well as transcribing (for use by others in the band) a couple of recorded pieces that he was requested to play the next day.

Even with the CGDA tuning, an accomplished tenor banjo player will still need to make some adjustments to play the ruan. From the picture in the last newsletter, it is evident that the frets on the ruan rise much higher than on the banjo. Therefore, according to Kurt, you need to learn not to press down very hard on the strings. But still, apparently there are a number of banjo players who have taken up the ruan.

During the Cell Block Seven concert in Taiwan, Kurt’s performances on the ruan, backed up by the band, included a traditional Chinese folk song, “the Moon Speaks to My Heart.” This piece brought the audience to their feet, without leaving a dry eye in the house. Kurt called that “the most emotional musical experience of my life.” It sounded like there was a real cross-cultural experience going on. Heavy stuff. To complete my Ph.D., I wrote a dissertation on trade with Asian nations, and learned about the many challenges ahead of us in that area. Wouldn’t it be something if the banjo (with its transferable playing skills) plays a part in facilitating these international relations? I will think about that the next time I hear a banjo joke.

Reprinted from the Sacrament Banjo Band Newsletter, September 2005, page 2.