‘It’s like making a music video..if you were in 1840.’

Vermont musician uses Appalachian ballads, hand scrolled ‘crankies’ to tell a story

Brendan Taaffe will play in Hope Dec. 9 and in Belfast Dec. 10
Wed, 12/07/2016 - 12:45pm

Brattleboro, Vt., musician Brandon Taaffe is coming to Maine this weekend with a unique twist on using art to visually illustrate his music. Using the 19th century art form of a crankie (scrolling illustrations hand-cranked through a wooden frame), he has found a particularly haunting way to tell a story.

“It’s like making a music video..if you were in 1840,” he said.

A multi-instrumentalist on guitar, fiddle, banjo and mbira, a thousand-year-old thumb piano derived from Africa, he will be playing in multiple venues and singing ballads to accompany the “moving panorama” of his crankies.

Taaffe is self-taught in crankie making. “We just had our third annual Crankie Fest in Vermont, which I curate,” he said. “There’s a lot of musicians coming back to this old art form, essentially to visually represent the music, especially with traditional ballads because there is such a clear story line. It’s such vibrantly visual language.”

Take a look at the crankie video accompanying this story: When The World Comes To an End that Taaffe created along with several teenagers at a summer camp. The deceptively simple back lit paper silhouette scroll took 40-50 hours just to create the three-minute video performed by The Bright Wings Chorus from Vermont.

“There are a lot of ways people make crankies, but the majority are back lit with silhouettes with a shadow puppetry imagery,” he said. “Actually, the most common way is to have the background be white and the images black, but we decided to do the opposite with this one using black as the background and the cut out images back lit in white. I think that’s what people responded so much to it, because it was so striking.”

This weekend, he sweeps into the Midcoast for a couple of events. The first is on Dec. 9, at 7 p.m. at Sweet Tree Arts in Hope, where Taaffe will be singing a cappella ballads to accompany four or five of his hand-made crankies. 

On Saturday, Dec. 10, he’ll perform more ballads at the Belfast Dance Studio at 8 p.m., while playing mbira, which he has been studying for more than nine years after traveling to Zimbabwe twice to study with master players.

“I think the sound of mbira is so evocative, so perfectly balanced on the knife edge between joy and sorrow — which is what makes it such a perfect instrument to accompany ballads” Take a listen to one of his songs on mbira: Can’t Hold The Wheel, in which he blends African rhythms with Appalachian ballads.

For more information visit: brendantaaffe.com

Kay Stephens can be reached at news@penbaypilot.com