From sheaves of banjo designs submitted to the U.S. Patent Office to entire styles named after its most revered players, inventiveness marks the banjo’s history. The 18th- century slaves exiled to the New World crafted from cultural memory and available resources half-gourds that they strung with catgut stretched down a long handle. The resulting instrument, one witness recalled, produced a “wild pleasing melancholy sound,” while another described the players’ fingers as moving like a handsaw. First-person accounts detailed banjo songs that intensified as they unspooled, each thrumming passage building on the next.
These pre-industrial patterns survived the centuries: a modern clawhammer banjoist at a festival jam, whose right hand rhythmically plies down on steel strings in sawing motion, plays a tune as if entranced. Fellow musicians huddled in the same circle find new ripples within the soulful melody, while others repeat chiming tones. Eventually someone gestures, signaling the tune’s close.
Victor Furtado, a teenager steeped in the banjo since childhood, knows such moments well. As a virtuoso now poised to enter conservatory, he stands out among his peers.
This album marks Victor’s third. He published his first solo collection at age eleven. The youngest of nine children in a musical family, he began playing at nine. He received initial tutoring from his sisters, as well as his father, and benefitted from an instructional video by banjoist Lynn Morris. His playing is anchored in the Round Peak style, a fiddle-and-banjo approach centered in Surry County, North Carolina, and given lasting renown by traditional exemplars such as Tommy Jarrell, Fred Cockerham, and Kyle Creed. For Victor, however, his exposure to these historical sources comes indirectly. He absorbed this style not from their recordings but from their admirers. At times he draws from YouTube performances that pique his interest, and these, too, serve as resources, each one offering him a jumping-off point. He reckons with this music not through the lens of a preservationist or by means of apprenticeship, but as a participant.
Nor does he limit his playing technique to traditional downpicking. The tunes govern his hands, and he has developed strumming patterns, fifth-string noting strategies, and non-standard finger picking that he employs as the pieces dictate. Victor’s choice of a twelve-inch pot, open-back banjo and the lower tones it produces, identifies a preference current among his community of musicians, even as it echoes earlier precedents heard in fretless and gourd banjos—both of which he also plays.
Victor learned most of the traditional pieces heard on this album during festival jams. As these exuberant recordings suggest, the tunes here become opportunities for collaboration and virtuosity. “We all changed the way we played,” he recalls about the opening track. The fiddler had just recently heard the number, the gathered musicians meanwhile forming a new ensemble. Such an arrangement leads to an improvisational approach that permeates this album. As Victor says, the point is “to make these melodies happen.”
Victor’s fellow players—Danny Knicely, Nate Leath, Sean Newman, Andrew Vogts, Aila Wildman, and Eli Wildman—variously contributed to the arrangements. During “Candy Girl,” for instance, the recording process drew on funk music precedents that Danny organized before the ensemble stepped into the more familiar tempo that concludes the track.
Victor’s practice sessions will, at times, lead him into composing an original tune. For several of his pieces he warmly acknowledges the influence of cellist Rushad Eggleston. Victor’s “Indian Song” references a suite Eggleston played that suggests an Arabian presence, while the unusual time signature of “Bear Chase,” also inspired by the cellist, showcases Nate Leath’s gypsyesque fiddle leads. “Tirth,” written while still “on a Rushad kick,” refers to a colorful ostrich born of Victor’s imagination. Sometimes tunings shape his compositions, as in “Rusty,” cast in open E, while “Clifftop Bell,” written at the annual Clifftop musical gathering, marks the surety of his soloing. The title track, “Dellorto Island,” stems from a 2016 cross-country moped trip Victor took with his father. Somewhere along the Kansas countryside, Victor’s carburetor failed. The island named in the tune recalls the isolation he felt at a filling station while his father fixed his bike, Dellorto being the brand name of the malfunctioning part.
While this reverie serves as the album’s title, originally Victor proposed another tune to name the collection, the one he calls “Branches and Vines.” The tune itself suggests 19th- century antecedents. Even though Victor did not consciously summon that body of historical song in composing it, this piece, like this album, attests to a venerable musical preserve. Its arboreal image of entanglement and growth speaks for the communities and traditions that have long nourished this music and influenced its practitioners. Victor Furtado, growing up in the Round Peak style and nurtured by its offshoots, thrives further still, sending through his banjo new bloom for us all.
Grainger, “The Sugar Cane: A Poem,” cited in Dena Epstein’s Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War.
Urbana: University of Illinois Press (2003): 32.