Beyond the Holler, Around the Globe

By Bill Graham - Special for the Mandolin Cafe
November 2, 2008 - 2:30 pm

Bill Graham
Bill Graham is a freelance outdoor writer, photographer, bluegrass musician and singer-songwriter.

The mandolin is so worldwide, and my thinking is so narrow.

That's how I felt as I pondered Volker Dick's note about my recent column on the second golden era of parlor picking.

"All the best to you from a non-pro mandolin player in Germany, picking in a parlor too—Volker."

His note was totally complimentary.

But I realized something about myself.

I wrote that column with a totally American point of view. I talked about American builders, American towns and the American music scene. I didn't look beyond my immediate horizon.

It's true that the work of Orville Gibson, Lloyd Loar and others in the USA set the mandolin on a new and higher musical course. Bill Monroe and Jethro Burns were like rocket launchers in raising the mandolin's visibility in American bluegrass and jazz, and those influences are still powerfully at work everywhere on Planet Earth.

But it's also true that mandolins began circling the globe long before my time, before Monroe's time, before Dave Apollon, before any people ever knew such instruments would someday be worth fantastic amounts of money.

Antonio Stradivarius made mandolins as well as violins in his famed Italian shop. Close cousins to our eight-string instrument were built centuries ago in other lands, too.

The Italian culture seems to have heightened mandolin popularity in the United States and the rest of the world in the late 1800s and early 1900s. But musicians in Italy also retained their mandolin musical traditions to today. Germany appears to be a modern stronghold for classical mandolin music.

I can be forgiven in part for my provincialism because so much of folk music from anywhere is dedicated to the love of family, home and countryside. Musicians see the beautiful things around them, embrace them emotionally and celebrate them in music.

So many people long to be on their way back to the old home, where there's comfort and assured love.

And if that home is in a hollow somewhere in the hills, evoking hard to get in and hard to get out, a protection from a world that seems so ever-threatening to comforts we treasure—so much the better.

Much of my going forward seems to be in hopes of going back.

But deep inside I know better.

In my senior year of high school my family hosted an American Field Service exchange student from Germany. He's a fine man from an upbringing so similar to my own. Our fathers fought in opposing armies in World War II. But his friendship and contacts with others from around the world drove the point home to me about similarities of human nature, and the value of peace.

To go forward is to look around the world, to enjoy life in the hollow but not delude yourself into thinking that it's not connected economically, socially and emotionally to the rest of the world.

The Mandolin Cafe is an unprecedented international crossroads for the exchange of all things related to the mandolin family and players.

For instance, Ken Ratcliff recently posted in the photos thread his "latest Silverangel bound for Chile."

Chad Stein asks in the general discussions area if he should take his mandolin to Africa? Several people say yes, and Joshua replies that he took his to South Africa: "I even got to play with a really good teenage marimba and drum band at an orphanage outside of Johannesburg (one of the greatest musical experiences of my life)."

Cafe technical master Dan Beimborn lives in England.

Steve Gilchrist makes some of the finest and most expensive mandolins on the planet in Australia.

David Grisman is playing and peddling mandolins made by Corrado Giacomel in Italy. Giacomel borrows heavily from Loar's sonic design while building with a wild, New Age artistic look. It's like a circular route in mandolin history is complete and starting over.

Mandolins are being cranked out in various Chinese wood shops and factories. Surely some workers take one home for the family members to play.

Here's one of my favorite international threads.

Hajd posted photos of a Vana Master Model F5 made by Miroslav Vana of the Czech Republic. We all drooled because it looks so nice and he replicates well the Loar F5. Hajd owns an A5 made by his countryman.

Eventually, Nagomi weighed in: "Hello, I'm a Japanese mando player and this Vana F-5M's owner."

Turns out, Nagomi is a hobby player who owns several pro-level mandolins from at least three different continents. Mandolinists from around the world then carried on a conversation about Vana sound and aesthetic qualities.

We shouldn't be surprised.

Mandolins are interesting and beautiful to look at. But they're also easily portable and not that hard to play when it comes to basic music. Break one string in a jungle somewhere, you've still got one left.

Most of us if stranded on a desert island would probably figure out how to build a pancake mandolin or turn a gourd into a bowlback.

But in this era of international commerce, it's the really fine and playable instruments that are crossing cultures the most.

Thanks Volker, for reminding me that I'm in a worldwide mandolin community. By the way, he writes a mandolin and bluegrass web blog. I can't read German writing, but I get the gist, and there's neat photos such as a group of mandolin players at a workshop.

The photo reminds me that when pick touches strings, the language is the same.

So here's to all you parlor pickers and master builders around the world.

Or as Nagomi of Japan said to those reading about his Czech mandolin—"Good pickin."

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