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We Banjo 3, part of Irish Fest lineup, celebrates the joyful, varied history of maligned banjo

We Banjo 3 — Fergal Scahill (from left), David Howley, Martin Howley and Enda Scahill — will play three sets at Kansas City’s Irish Fest this weekend.
We Banjo 3 — Fergal Scahill (from left), David Howley, Martin Howley and Enda Scahill — will play three sets at Kansas City’s Irish Fest this weekend. Sean McCormack

Martin Howley has heard plenty of banjo jokes.

He even has a few favorites, like: I left my banjo in the car with the doors unlocked. When I came back later, five more banjos were in the car.

“We like those jokes; they’re funny and good-natured,” said Howley, 27, a member of the Irish band We Banjo 3, who has been playing his favorite instrument since he was a boy growing up in Ireland.

“There was always a lot of music in our house,” he said. “My dad played professionally, so there was a lot of singing and a lot of different instruments played. I don’t remember exactly when I heard the banjo for the first time. I was younger than 10. I remember I really loved its sound, a very joyful, happy sound. So I asked, ‘Can we get one?’ And we did.”

As a youth, Howley was in several bands that played a variety of music: traditional Irish music, bluegrass, singer/songwriter. For a while, he played drums in a rock band.

“It was music all the time,” he said. “It started as a hobby, then I took some commercial gigs. And in college, I started playing as a professional side job. Then we started (We Banjo 3), and things really took off.”

We Banjo 3, which performs three times at this weekend’s Irish Fest, started in 2011. It has released three albums, starting with its debut, “Roots of the Banjo Tree,” issued in 2012, which earned the band much acclaim and many awards.

We Banjo 3 was named best new band at the 2013 Live Ireland Awards, where it was hailed as “the hottest thing in the tradition. … They are a stunning example of current brilliance in (traditional music). … Fantastic stuff from young, master musicians.”

The band comprises Howley, his brother David and brothers Enda and Fergal Scahill. The band was a trio until Enda Scahill joined; thus the name.

All four play a variety of stringed instruments. In addition to the banjo, Martin Howley plays the mandolin and tenor guitar, as does Enda Scahill. David Howley sings and plays banjo and guitar; Fergal Scahill plays fiddle, guitar and bodhrán.

All have won All-Ireland titles on at least one instrument. Martin Howley has won it on the banjo seven times. He has become a student of the instrument and its history in Ireland, where it was a late arrival in traditional Irish music.

“It first arrived in Europe and Ireland, I believe, in the 1850s or so, when the minstrel shows from America began touring,” he said. “Then it really took off in the 1960s and the revival of folk in Ireland and Dublin.”

We Banjo 3’s music reflects the banjo’s varied past. From a review of “Banjo Tree” in the Irish Times: “We Banjo 3 … revel in tracing the picaresque pathways taken by the instrument, from its origins in Africa, to its crossing to the U.S. on slave ships and its ultimate morphing into shapes which we now recognize as bluegrass, old-timey American music and, yes, even that much-maligned, racist form of artistic expression, minstrelsy.”

We Banjo 3 has been credited with — or “accused of,” as Howley put it — birthing a movement that has been dubbed “Celtgrass,” a mix of Celtic music and bluegrass. Howley said the band’s sound comes from the varied music each member listens to.

“Our music has roots in Ireland,” he said. “We’re all Irish musicians and rooted in that. But the huge amount of bluegrass and Americana music we listened to growing up also had a big influence.

“We love playing Bela Fleck, Earl Scruggs, Chris Thile, all these guys who are such amazing players and are playing brilliant, virtuosic music. So we got really into that. And also people like Hank Williams Jr. and Johnny Cash, guys who sang really important songs about real life experiences. That informed us, too.”

We Banjo 3 has generated much acclaim for its recording, but the rubber really meets the road during its live performances, Howley said.

“We bring a lot of energy and fun and try to appeal to people across the spectrum,” he said. “Whether someone is there to hear traditional Irish music or bluegrass, we give them a flavor of each. And some people don’t have a strong background in either. They just want to go out, enjoy live music, dance and have fun. And that’s what we try to give them.”

And the banjo, the “joyful, happy banjo,” helps arouse those moods and sentiments. Howley said the jokes will always be funny, but they don’t alter his affections.

“With social media and all that, you see more stuff like that pop up,” he said. “The banjo definitely has a funny reputation (in Ireland), but, really, it’s because some people are jealous because the banjo sounds so amazing.”

This weekend

The 13th annual Kansas City Irish Fest runs from Friday through Sunday at Crown Center Square. A variety of ticket packages is available, starting at $10 for a single Friday ticket. Other daily tickets are $12. A weekend pass is available for $30. The music starts at 5 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. Sunday. For tickets and other information, visit KCIrishfest.com.

Ten Banjo jokes

How can you tell when a banjo player is at the door?

He can’t find the key, and he doesn’t know when to come in.

What did the banjo player get on his IQ test?

Drool.

How do you know when a banjo player is off-key?

His fingers are moving.

What’s perfect pitch?

An accordion hitting a banjo in a Dumpster.

What do you call a pretty girl on a banjo player’s arm?

A tattoo.

What do you call 20 banjos at the bottom of a lake?

A good start.

What does no one ever say to the banjo player?

Is that your Porsche?

Boy: Mom, when I grow up I want to play banjo. Mom: Honey, you can’t do both.

How is a banjo like a bomb?

By the time you hear it, it’s too late.

How do you get a banjo player off your porch?

Pay for the pizza.

Recommended shows

Among the dozens of acts performing at this year’s Kansas City Irish Fest are three first-timers. Here’s a look at each.

▪ Daimh: The name, which is pronounced “dime,” is Gaelic for “kinship.” Daimh is a quintet from the West Highlands of Scotland. Its sound is traditional and acoustic, a mix of uptempo anthems and slower ballads that feature a variety of instruments: Highland pipes and whistles, guitar, fiddle, mandolin, banjo and Uilleann pipes.

From a review at FolkRadioUK.com: “Much of Daimh’s attraction, though, stems from interspersing the rampaging tunes with slow lyrical pieces that have the capacity to take your breath away.” 5 p.m. Friday; 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday

▪ Tupelo: The name is iconic in American music (birthplace of Elvis, Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey,” the band Uncle Tupelo). But the band Tupelo is a quartet from Galway, Ireland, that casts its songs in fiddle, Dobro, guitars, stand-up bass, mandolin, banjo, guitjo and other stringed instruments. Some of its songs are infused with Celtic and bluegrass accents; otherwise the band delivers straight-up Americana-roots/folk, the kind you might read about in No Depression magazine. 8:30 p.m. Friday; 3 p.m. Saturday; 5 p.m. Sunday

▪ Baile an Salsa: If you’ve ever imagined a fusion of Latin salsa and traditional Irish music, here is your chance to hear it live. Baile an Salsa is a 10-piece orchestra from Galway, Ireland, that mixes its love for salsa with the music the members grew up with, a sound they call “salsa-trad.” Instrumentation includes flute, bouzouki, piano, accordion, mandolin, fiddle, bass and congas. Songs are performed in Gaelic, English and Spanish. It has a reputation for being a fierce live band, one that arouses as much energy as it delivers. 8 p.m. Friday; 9:30 p.m. Saturday; 7 p.m. Sunday

Timothy Finn, tfinn@kcstar.com

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