HomeBanjo To Beatbox: An Unexpected Collaboration

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When Betty Scott, education program coordinator at Strathmore arts center in North Bethesda, Md., scheduled a meeting last year between a Grammy-winning folk musician and a hip-hop beatbox artist, she didn’t know she was laying the foundation for what would become a critically acclaimed, multi-award-winning musical collaboration.

But almost instantly, Cathy Fink, who serves as a mentor to artists in Strathmore’s emerging artists-in-residence program,  and Christon “Christylez” Bacon, a resident in the 2008 program, found that the unlikely pair of musical instruments they brought to the meeting — Fink’s banjo and Bacon’s beatboxing ability — were a perfect match.

Bacon tested out a variety of beats over the rhythms Fink strummed on the banjo.

“I had to go back to work because I could see they were going to be there a long time,” Scott said.

Fink and Bacon had a lot of fun playing together, a jam session of banjo and beatbox. “The two fit together so perfectly,” Fink said. Then Fink’s musical partner, Marcy Marxer, joined with a cello banjo. “None of us ever imagined that hip hop and old time country would fit together so well,” Fink said.

Scott agrees. “The three of them getting together was a match made in heaven,” she said.

Fink and Marxer have been making music together since the 1980s, after meeting at the 1980 Toronto Folk Festival. In addition to folk music, the pair has recorded several award-winning albums of children’s music, mostly using folk instruments. But after meeting Bacon, Strathmore’s first hip hop artist-in-residence,  as well as seeing him perform at sold-out shows at Strathmore, Fink and Marxer realized that Bacon’s versatile beatboxing and storytelling ability could fit well on a children’s album. 

The collaboration, “Banjo to Beatbox,” was released in June. Since its release, the album has won several awards, including an Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Platinum Award, a Parent’s Choice Gold Award, a National Parenting Publications Award, a Mr. Dad seal of approval, and Creative Child magazine’s 2009 Seal of Excellence.

Fink, Marxer and Bacon wrote most of the songs in fall 2008 and tried them out in classrooms and performances before recording them album in January.

The album features folk instruments including a five-string banjo, six-string banjo, banjo-ukelele, cello-banjo and tango-banjo, as well as kazoo, washboard, and various toys. Bacon lays down the beats, and Bacon’s tuba player John Pollard plays on a few tracks.

Bacon doesn’t use heavy, aggressive hip hop beats on the songs with Fink and Marxer — he recreates the sounds of traditional drumbeats. But, he shows off some of his hip hop flavor on “It’s the Beatbox,” where he demonstrates slow and fast rhythms, and how he can use p’s and t’s to make different drumbeats. The song, like several on the album, uses call and response, common in children’s music.

Bacon started beatboxing  and freestyle rapping in middle school, after growing up listening to hip hop and a variety of styles of music as his mom was a DJ in the D.C. area. While he enjoys working with instruments, he said there’s something unique about beatboxing.  “It’s cool because it’s so organic,” he said.

The collaboration gave Bacon, Fink and Marxer the chance to show children and their parents that two completely different types of music can be fused together to create a new sound. The collaboration also has the potential to reach people of different backgrounds and socio-economic classes, Bacon said.

Bacon grew up in a low-income neighborhood in Southeast D.C., where hip hop and go-go are the most popular styles of music. “I’m from a totally different world,” he said. “I’m really new to banjos.”

"Hip Hop Humpty Dumpty", which Bacon wrote in collaboration with Fink and Marxer, gave him a chance to tell a classic fairy tale from an “urban perspective.” The song features call and response as Bacon tells a fractured fairy tale. In this version of the tale, Humpty Dumpty makes a friend, Lady Butter Stick, who melts under the heat of the sun after she and Humpty Dumpty stay out too late. Then, Humpty Dumpty slips and falls, and becomes scrambled. The moral of the story is: “Listen to your parents ‘cause they ain’t no yolk.”

Bacon’s original intent for the song was to appeal to kids in an educational outreach program at a D.C.-area elementary school. “I wanted to be able to engage them,” he said. Bacon said the song is always a hit at his shows, even with adults.   

Bacon said his favorite song on “Banjo to Beatbox,” as far as songwriting, is “Syncopated Washboard Rhythm Song.” He said the song, which features a washboard and various auxiliary instruments, is quirky and clever. Bacon doesn’t appear on the track—Pollard plays tuba in place of a beat. “It gave it an appropriate groove,” Bacon said.

Fink, who has played banjo for 35 years and guitar for her whole life, said the collaboration with Bacon taught her a lot about how hip hop can be used for storytelling. “I’d have to say that I had a lot less experience with hip hop,” she said.

She said “Banjo to Beatbox” is a good example of how hip hop can be a positive, linguistically safe experience for a family audience, because Bacon is a storyteller who imparts positive messages and stays away from the violent, negative language that is heard so often in contemporary hip hop music. Fink said the album gives parents a way to introduce children to the popular genre. “Because it’s cool, they’re interested in the genre,” she said. “People are pleasantly surprised at how well these genres mix.”

While Fink said she can’t choose any one song on the album as a favorite, she has enjoyed the response to the album’s opening track, “Jubilation.” “I love ‘Jubilation’ because kids and parents have written their own verses, which we encouraged them to do.” Fink and Marxer are encouraging listeners to write their own verses and submit them on their blog. They post their favorite entries on their blog and will record some favorites for the blog and their Web site.

Fink said “Hip Hop Humpty Dumpty” has been the album’s most popular song. “I think it’s a really unique piece,” she said.

The collaboration has allowed Fink, Marxer and Bacon a new musical experience, while offering their audience a unique listening experience. “There’s value to us, personally, and value to our audience,” Fink said. “As long as you’re doing art, you’re never done expanding and stretching.”


About the author:
Julie Stewart has experience singing with choral groups in both high school and college and two a cappella groups, Melismatics and Echoes, at Lehigh University. In high school, Julie was a member of her school's auditioned A Cappella Choir and Madrigal singers. She also represented her high school at District and Region choir festivals and was selected twice to be a member of the Pennsylvania Music Educator's Association All-State Vocal Jazz Ensemble.