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Teenage Banjo Prodigy To Perform At Virtual globalFEST


globalFEST was established in the early 2000s to showcase both world music and American regional music traditions. Like so many other music festivals, the event will have to be virtual this year. They have teamed up with NPR Music's Tiny Desk concerts for online coverage that premieres Monday night, January 11, on NPR Music's YouTube page.


NORA BROWN: (Singing) I went down an old (unintelligible).

SIMON: Among the artists featured will be Nora Brown. She is 15 years old. She's been making music since she started playing the ukulele at the age of 6. She now plays banjo. She sings traditional Appalachian music. What we're hearing right now is music from her debut album, "Cinnamon Tree," that was released when Nora Brown was 13. She joins us from her home in Brooklyn. Thanks so much for being with us.

BROWN: Hey, hey.

SIMON: Well, hey, hey. And look; I got to tell you, I know you can find anything from any part in the world in Brooklyn.


SIMON: But I got to tell you, I didn't think, you know, eastern Kentucky banjo music or ukulele music would be included.

BROWN: Yeah.

SIMON: How'd you hear that music and get interested in it?

BROWN: Well, although my dad grew up in Nashville, Tenn., you know, in that - the Music City, that's not actually how I was introduced to this type of music. A friend of a friend recommended this teacher. His name was Shlomo Pestcoe. He has since passed away, but he was my first teacher. But he was very strict about only learning old-time music. So he liked to say that anything after the 1950s was pop music. So we stayed behind that time stamp.

SIMON: What do you think you liked about it?

BROWN: Well, a couple of things that draw me to the music - well, one would be its storytelling properties. A lot of the songs tell stories and - a little bit of, like, a time capsule. You know, they're telling stories from a certain time. A lot of them are written about tragedies. A lot of them - you know, you got murder ballads, often songs about terrible, terrible things, like mining disasters and all this stuff. But you're not really writing new things. But you are learning songs that have been passed down for generations and putting your own twist on them.

SIMON: Look; we want to talk more to you, but we also want to hear some banjo. And I happen to know you've got it on your knee there. So...


SIMON: ...Can we hear a little?

BROWN: Sure. Sure.

SIMON: Thank you.

BROWN: This is a little tune called - it's called "Will Davenport's Tune."

(Playing banjo).

SIMON: That's beautiful.

BROWN: Thank you.

SIMON: What do you hear in a lot of the songs that you discover?

BROWN: Well, as I think you said at the beginning, I do play a lot of that eastern Kentucky style of music. And something I do like about a lot of the stuff that is coming from that area is it's a lot about the singing and the voice. And the banjo is usually fairly, fairly simple. I mean, it can appear simple, but a lot of times it's a backing for singing. That is something that I do enjoy also because I like to sing. And I think that singing with the banjo is, you know, not always what you hear in bluegrass and stuff that's, you know, more popular. People are hearing banjo as more of like a backing instrument, but the solo banjoist singing is something that I think is really beautiful.


BROWN: (Singing) Well, I never missed my woman until the day she died. And I never missed my water until the day my spring ran dry.

SIMON: You're in the 10th grade.


SIMON: What do your classmates think of your music?

BROWN: People ask me this question a lot, but people are usually pretty surprised. But, you know, it's kind of like, oh, pretty cool. I mean, I've never gotten, like, bullied or anything for it. But, like, I usually like to keep it on the low. It's like my secret identity. I don't know. Most people who I'm close to know about this. And people who, like, follow me on Instagram will know about my music stuff.

SIMON: Do you ever, like, play along with a Cardi B song or something?

BROWN: I can do a version of "Sir Duke" by Stevie Wonder, but that's about as current as I get.

SIMON: Could we hear a little?

BROWN: I usually have to practice a little bit before I do it, but I can try.

SIMON: All right. Just - if we can get a little riff. Yeah.


BROWN: (Singing) Music is a world within itself with a language we all understand with an equal opportunity to sing, dance and clap your hands. Just because a record has a groove don't make it in the groove. And you can tell right away at letter A when the people start to move. Oh, you can feel it all over. You can feel it all over people. Oh, you can feel it all over. Everybody all over, people.


BROWN: I have to practice before I do it. It's so cuckoo, but that's the best I can do for now.

SIMON: That's terrific. That's terrific.

BROWN: I do have to credit that to my friend, Taylor Ashton (ph), who kind of discovered that that song was playable on the banjo and taught that one to me.

SIMON: That great Stevie Wonder song.

BROWN: Yes. Yes.

SIMON: What's this period been like for you? I imagine you've had to do a lot of remote schooling, haven't been traveling, probably haven't been performing.

BROWN: No. So I've been - yeah, I'm doing a lot of live shows and stuff. I've also been teaching workshops online and private lessons.

SIMON: Yeah. Living the way we've had to for the past 10 months, you haven't been able to travel. And more to the point, you haven't been able to go to some of the places that - where this music is played and where it was invented and hear stories and talk to the people who play it, right?

BROWN: Yes, that's true. And that's like - you know, as an outsider to this music, that is something that is very important to me, to be visiting people and places. And this music really stems from - it's not - it was not really a performing type of thing. Old-time and traditional music, this was home stuff. This was front porch music, right? So going to, like, eastern Kentucky, around these parts and talking to people and learning music face to face, building those connections with other amazing masters of the banjo, that's how it's supposed to be learned. So I've been missing that during this COVID time.

SIMON: Well, something to look forward to in the future. Nora Brown - you can see her performance this coming Thursday on NPR Music's YouTube channel as part of the Tiny Desk meets globalFEST - thank you so much.

BROWN: So fun - thank you so much for having me. This was awesome.


BROWN: (Singing) I'm a rambling woman, God knows. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.