I'd never think that a banjo player could find my musical sweet spot, which falls somewhere between Mali and The Velvet Underground, but Otis Taylor hits it, spot on. Taylor's music is trance-inducing, and he achieves that effect by playing songs that are modal: Sometimes, they sit on one chord for the entire song. Taylor says that by doing that, by eliminating chord changes, you also eliminate reference points, so songs can run as long as 10 or even 15 minutes in length. After a while, you have no idea how long they've been going on — that's when the trance just hits you.
Taylor grew up in Denver. His mom had a ukulele, and one day, while playing around with the instrument, he broke a string and went to the local music shop to get it fixed.
Taylor says he "walked into the store and psychologically never came out. All of a sudden, I heard Mississippi John Hurt [and] country music; I never heard country music, banjos and guitars. And I went there every day after school until I moved to Boulder. And they taught me for free, because I was a little poor black kid; because it was close to the ghetto. It was sort of the bohemian section of Denver where all the coffeehouses were."
The roots of the banjo go back to Africa, but Otis Taylor didn't know that when he started to play the instrument. In fact, he says, "I didn't know the banjo came from Africa until I heard it on NPR about 15 or 20 years ago." What Taylor does with that instrument — and with the songs he writes and sings — honors that long tradition. You'll hear that when you watch this Tiny Desk Concert. Performing along with Taylor were his bandmates: Todd Edmunds on bass, Larry Thompson on drums, Anne Harris on fiddle and Jon Paul Johnson on guitar.
- "Ten Million Slaves"
- "Ran So Hard"
- "Talking About It Blues"
- "Think I Won't"
Michael Katzif (cameras); edited by Bob Boilen; audio by Kevin Wait; photo by Erin Schwartz