Anyone interested in the history of the banjo will eventually discover Shlomo Pestcoe of Brooklyn, N.Y., a genuine folkie, a multi-instrumentalist, and an unmatched researcher into the roots of American music.
Cofounder of the Banjo Roots Research Initiative, Shlomo began with Dena Epstein’s body of work, and, using her methodology, dug further into each reference found in her book, “Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War.” He and others eventually found a family of more than 60 banjo ancestors — various plucked lutes — in Africa, and built a case that the prototype banjo was “invented” in the Caribbean by African slaves. It was there on sugar plantations that the slaves fitted skin-covered gourds, used in Africa, with flat necks and tuning pegs, used by Europeans on guitars. The earliest illustrations of banjos, and the earliest extant banjo, were made in this fashion.
When I first contacted Shlomo to set up an interview for the film, he replied enthusiastically: “Dena saved my life.” I couldn’t wait to hear his story. It was a beauty, but I couldn’t find a place for it in the film. Here it is:
Shlomo lives on in his students, his music, his inspiration and generous scholarship. I am thankful for his help in making the film, which includes several of his performances in the soundtrack.