Produced by the Department of Media Relations & Publications

The Banjo in the Irish Music Scene

March 11, 2009

The CUNY Institute for Irish American Studies invited Donie Ryan to Lehman to perform and talk about the banjo in traditional Irish-American music.

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This is Neem Dewji, a student at Lehman College.

The banjo traveled from Africa to America in the late eighteenth century with enslaved Africans. In 1855, Irish Americans brought the banjo back to their native land, where its popularity quickly rose.

Banjo player Donie Ryan is originally from Tipperary, Ireland. He picked up his first banjo at the age of 10 and learned how to play the instrument by ear. Ryan moved to the United States after playing banjo in Germany and has played in the New York session scene for over eight years.

The CUNY Institute for Irish American Studies invited Ryan to Lehman to perform and talk about the banjo in traditional Irish-American music.




Just like everyone in Ireland, kind of, it's just passed down from family. It was passed down to me from my father. And probably my uncle who-- who played banjo. I probably took it at around ten. I actually started on the mandolin.

Because, you know, they were cheaper, smaller, easier for a kid to play. My uncle was the only one I knew in-- within 100 miles of me anyway. And it kind of-- the banjo definitely got more popular over the last-- 15, 20 years.

It was really starting to get popular in kind of the '70s. So-- but there's no one I could take lessons off of for the banjo. So, I just took lessons with other instruments. Just to learn the tunes. And did that for a couple of years. And then just picked up tunes off my father, really. Just in pubs, and that year, and that kind of stuff. I guess when I started playing it after my father brought me the first instrument, he was kind of like, "Well, you'd better learn it now, son." After he spent some money on it. (LAUGHTER)


It was a great way for me to make ex-- to make money as a kid, kind of. We used to do gigs, maybe two or three gigs a week. Just in local pubs kind of a thing. Sessions. Without equipment or anything. Just, you know, three or four people playing. And they still do that at home.

And then when I come to the States to visit my sister, she was playing in a band out here. So, I ended up getting into it that way. Kind of gigging with them for a bit. And then, I just started going to gigs. I came out in '98. So I was around-- I was 23 at the time. I lived in Germany for awhile and played music out there. And a little bit toured around Europe, a little bit.

The Irish scene is huge in Europe. It's actually bigger probably in Europe right now. Back then, it wasn't, but it's-- it's huge. You have a lot of-- bands coming from Germany and France playing in Ireland. A lot of people that do it, as a living, you know. I'd say 95 percent of them. Most of the tunes that-- would, say, Germans and French would learn would have-- if-- if they're Irish tunes, they're gonna have an Irish influence from some part of Ireland. And for me, locally, I suppose, living around North Tip, Paddy O'Brien was a big influence on the music. We used to play, box player. Pretty famous, box player.




Regional style is-- is not as strong as it used to be. 'Cause, you know, with CDs and internet, and everything, people can freely access any region of music.

So, in one respect, I suppose it's-- it's kind of-- hasn't been good for music in one way. But, in another way, it means that musicians now-a-days are open to play, you know, any type of music with different styles. But, you have a lot of Irish-American players out here that can play all different styles. The only way to really learn a regional music is to actually live there, and-- and play there for-- for a good number of years, you know.

And-- but that's har-- even harder to do now-a-days. Because a lot of the older players are dying off. So, a lot of the regional stars will go with a lot of them. But, I'm sure, you know, if you want to learn an East Galway style, you really have to find players in East Galway. And kind of either play with them, or live there, kind of a thing. You can notice a New York style as well. Like, some of the older fiddle players in the city here. When they immigrated out here, passed it down to a whole generation of Irish-Americans.


You know, a lot of the players in the city were taught correctly. The banjo is heavily influenced not so much by regional styles but by actual banjo players, I find anyway, so. My younger brother plays banjo, and he plays completely different then me. And we're from the same area. But his influence is very O'Connor kind of-- who's a very modern, contemporary player.

So, like all the young banjo players play like that now. American banjos are actually the best. American-- and then in Europe, I suppose German banjos. I think the first banjo that came into Ireland was with the Traveling Minstrels in the 1800's-- 1845. And that actually came from two Irish-American guys that lived in America that traveled with this band. You know, in Ireland, it's-- it's a little bit different. It's a bit easier in Ireland if you do play music. But, I mean, I couldn't see any-- musicians don't really follow a trend kind of a thing.





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