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Paul Ely Smith: Bio

I’m a musician living in Palouse, WA with my wife, son, and dog. I compose, produce, and record music, and sometimes build musical instruments. I play many string instruments and styles of music. Besides my current focus on the lost music of the African-American gourd banjo, I also play Irish and North American fiddle music, piano, guitar, mandolin, rubab, al’ud, djembe, krar... Recently I have been focused on finishing my CD, "American Akonting," and getting that into the world, but I began this project in the late 1980s with research that in 1992 led to a controversial publication in an academic musicology journal. Pulitzer-prizewinning poet Gwendolyn Brooks allowed me to include her fiery poem “Gottschalk and the Grand Tarantelle” that she had recently published at the time, in which she presented the idea that Gottschalk had taken his most distinctive music from the playing of anonymous African-American musicians. Coincidentally, I had been doing the research that backed up her claim. Still, published research couldn’t tell the story of what I heard when started to play this music. I was a banjo player of some renown (two critically-acclaimed albums on the Flying Fish label in the 1980s), but I quit playing the modern banjo so I could devote myself to both building gourd banjos (in my version of the original fretless design) and mastering this entirely undiscovered roots music, while designing and teaching World Music courses at Washington State University. Figuring out how to integrate West African lute design and surviving evidence of early American banjos was itself a decades-long process, and as each innovation dramatically improved the design, the actual technique and repertoire would have to evolve as well. I built a state-of-the-art audiophile recording studio for acoustic music, began recording, and finally, in Fall of 2016, the CD was finished. Besides "American Akonting," I also am chipping away on an opera/musical, "Cassandra," and a few other projects. I have done a fair amount of record production for other artists, but have tried to clear the docket recently to get my own work out the door. In recent years, I have worked in a remarkable range of venues, from performing the mandolin in the Washington-Idaho Symphony's staging of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" (February 2014) to performing my "Palouse ragas" on the Afghan rubab for restorative yoga here in my little town of Palouse, WA once a month. Some other highlights... In Fall 2007 I received a commission to compose music for a devotional service being created by the Common Ministry at Washington State University and University of Idaho for people of no particular religion. The result, "Mosaic," was recorded in Spring of 2008 and the limited CD release is now sold out. In Spring of 2006 I released a CD of music I have composed for Seattle-based performance artist Thomas Arthur called "Handmade." I’m also currently a member of a traditional Irish music band called “Potatohead,” which released a CD called "Palouse Irish" in 2005. In the 1980s I released two records on the Flying Fish label, "Mysterious Barricades" (1982) and "Ellipsis" (1984), the latter being with Seattle musicians William Pint and Robert Kotta. Besides performing for several years with William and Bob as “Ellipsis,” other groups that have performed my music include the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Chanticleer, the Pacific String Quartet, and the Northwest Chamber Orchestra.