Delaware Today magazine 302 First Profile: Lana Lawrence, also known as Mama Mojo, makes cigar box banjos and other musical instruments in Rehoboth Beach

Cigar Box Hero: To Mama Mojo, one person’s trash is another person’s ... guitar.



Lana Lawrence was looking for a distraction from pain when she went on the Internet a little more than three years ago. What she found was a passion that touched her soul and started a new business.

“I remember just going, ‘Wow!’’’ says Lawrence, who makes cigar box guitars under the name of Mama Mojo.

She was simply looking for a lightweight guitar to play when she ran across a YouTube video of a man playing what she calls “soul grabbing, deep primal Delta Blues” music on a tiny instrument made of guitar string, a piece of wood and a cigar box.

“I gotta’ do that,” was Lawrence’s immediate response.

Cigar box instruments have been around more than 150 years in this country. Plans for a cigar box banjo were published in 1884 by Daniel Carter Beard, co-founder of the Boy Scouts of America. Etchings of soldiers playing cigar box fiddles can be found from the Civil War. They really took off, though, in the 1930s during The Great Depression. People didn’t have the money to buy fancy guitars, so they built their own.

“Musical instruments were beyond the means of most, but an old cigar box, a piece of broom handle and a couple wires from the screen door—and a guitar were born,” according to a posting from the National Cigar Box Guitar Museum in York, Pa. Today these instruments aren’t relegated to the front porches of America’s poor. Cigar box guitar players have included Jimi Hendrix, Ted Nugent, B.B. King and Johnny Depp.

While making such an instrument can be quite simple, most of today’s modern cigar box guitars are a little more complex.

Lawrence said she studied plans, designs and actual instruments for six months before she built her first guitar.

“I didn’t want to start out making junk,” says Lawrence, seated in the Rehoboth home she shares with her partner, Linda Palmer, as well as their dog, Jazz, and two cats named Dylan and Hendrix. Throughout the house are stacks of wooden cigar boxes, containers of guitar string, amplifier pieces and odds and ends she collects to add artistic flare to her pieces.

Lawrence is a recycler’s recycler. She came up with a way to cut plastic to make inlays that look like onyx. Even items like tuna cans spark ideas.

“We have very little trash around the house,” says Nate McCormick, a musician who also lives with Lawrence. “She’ll use a screw she found or a piece of plastic off a bottle. She’s fun and they’re awesome. Every [guitar] is a little different and has its own sound.”

The bigger the box, the better, says Lawrence. She’s used wooden craft boxes, lunch boxes and even a hubcap to make an instrument. Recently she started work on a guitar made from a heart-shaped box. “I try not to build the same thing twice.”

Her instruments are functional works of art. Although she disdains the use of tobacco, she sometimes leaves the logos and names of the cigar companies on the boxes because the artwork is too beautiful to erase, she says. Her three- and four-string guitar designs come with inlays, different stains, brass decorations and frets, and hand-carved necks. Every one is electrified to allow the maximum depth of sound.

“You can do just about anything on these instruments,” she says. “It all depends on how you string them up. I could fill a concert hall with [the sound of] these.” In her music room, guitars hang from every wall—above the guitars and speakers on the floor—and they’re mixed in with vintage posters and signed art from concerts and music venues. There are shelves stacked high with cigar boxes. And lots of other boxes carry extra, and they’re piled near an array of drums, tambourines, mandolins, fiddles and banjos.

Yet, Lawrence does not consider herself a musician. In her heart, she’s a photographer.

For years, Lawrence was a photographer in Washington, D.C. She documented 9/11 at the Pentagon, the anthrax attacks shortly thereafter, and other momentous events. Her work was displayed in the Library of Congress and she was the director of photography at the Sewall-Belmont House and Museum, next to the Senate Hart Office Building.

She’s sure she would still be doing the same work, oblivious to handmade guitars had it not been for her gallbladder. Surgery to remove it in 2007 led to a flesh-eating bacterial infection that left her in constant pain and nearly took her life. Her days often start with painkillers to allow her to function. But that pain led to the guitars.

Lawrence could no longer work as a photographer—carrying three cameras and a bag full of lenses around Capitol Hill was out of the question. Yet, she realized from her brush with death that every moment should be spent doing something she loved. Music was one of those loves. Regular-sized guitars were too painful to play. They rested against her side, which is always sore. But she couldn’t imagine life without a musical release, thus the computer search for a lightweight guitar.

She bought her first guitar online from Shane Speal of York, Pa., the self-appointed “King of the Cigar Box Guitar.” Speal became Lawrence’s mentor, friend and fan.

Speal considers Lawrence a great example of a modern builder, and an asset to the cigar box guitar movement. Once Lawrence began playing and then building her own guitars, she immediately started helping others. She created an online woman’s group to encourage other female artists to build and play, and she is always available with advice and instruction for someone who wants to get into the craft, says Speal.

It’s not about money for Lawrence, it’s about making music available to everyone. While cigar box guitars listed online run from $200 to $2,000, Mama Mojo guitars generally cost under $200, with some as low as $75.

“A lot of people say I charge too little for the work I put in,” says Lawrence, who is considering a high-end model for collectors. Plus, she’s not limiting herself to guitars. She makes canjos (banjo-like instruments made from cans), stomp boxes (small wooden boxes placed under the foot, which is tapped rhythmically to produce a sound similar to a bass drum), and thumb pianos (an African instrument played by plucking different lengths of metal tines fastened to a piece of wood).

When she feels up to it,  Lawrence hosts jam sessions with local friends and musicians. Music is in her soul.

“My mind doesn’t shut off about these instruments,” she says. “If I’m not building them, I’m thinking about building them.”
 

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February 2016

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Cost: FREE and open to the public

Where:
Delaware State University
1200 N DuPont Highway
Dover, DE  19901
View map »

More information

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The Station Gallery
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Cost: Free with Museum Admission.

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Cost: Free with Museum Admission.

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The Station Gallery
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Cost: Free with Museum Admission.

Where:
Penn Museum
3260 South St.
Philadelphia, PA  19104
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What was behind the legendary story of King Midas and his golden touch? That is the question to be answered—not with chests full of gold, but with a spectacular array of ancient artifacts,...

Cost: Adults $20; seniors $18; students (with ID) $15; children (ages 6–17) $15

Where:
Penn Museum
3260 South St.
Philadelphia, PA  19104
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Guests can explore three floors of exhibitions in the Visitor Center, stroll along the river through dozens of historic structures from the Industrial Revolution, and explore the gardens and...

Cost: $0-14

Where:
Hagley Museum
201 Hagley Creek Rd
Wilmington, DE  19807
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Telephone: 302-658-2400
Contact Name: Meg Marcozzi
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Penn Museum opens the world premiere exhibition The Golden Age of King Midas—featuring ancient treasures on loan from the Republic of Turkey—with a spectacular daylong public...

Cost: $15

Where:
Penn Museum
3260 South St.
Philadelphia, PA  19104
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This art exhibit features fine art works and three dimensional pieces that embrace the subject “red.” Artist are free to use their imagination and creativity, so works will include...

Cost: Free

Where:
The Gibby Center for the Arts
51 W Main St.
Middletown, DE  19709
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Sponsor: The Gibby Center for the Arts
Telephone: 302-449-5396
Contact Name: Caroline Zeitler
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For more information, please contact: Dave Ruffner ​Rehoboth Beach Film Society 107 Truitt Ave. Rehoboth Beach, DE 19971 302-645-9095, ext. 4 administrator@rehobothfilm.com...

Cost: Free

Where:
, DE


Sponsor: Rehoboth Beach Film Society
Telephone: 302-645-9095
Contact Name: Jeri Kaplan
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The Rehoboth Beach Film Society and CAMP Rehoboth will co-present "Tab Hunter Confidential" and "Portrait of a Serial Monogamist" as part of its annual Another Take...

Cost: $8

Where:
Metropolitan Community Church
19369 Plantation Rd.
Rehoboth Beach, DE  19971
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Sponsor: Rehoboth Beach Film Society
Telephone: 302-645-9095
Contact Name: Jeri Kaplan
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"La Sylphide" shares the beautiful and romantic story of our hero, James—a young Scottish farmer who, on the eve of hid wedding, abandons his betrothed, Effie, after being...

Cost: $25

Where:
Salesanium School
1801 North Broom St.
Wilmington, DE  19802
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Sponsor: Academy of International Ballet
Telephone: 1-866-908-5666
Contact Name: Denis Gronostayskiy
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Venture back with us for an evening where we re-imagine the Victorian Industrial Age as seen through our steam-powered, futuristic goggles.  Our biggest fundraiser of the year and all proceeds...

Cost: $100-$110

Where:
Smyrna Opera House
7 West South Street
Smyrna, DE  19977
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A spoiled orphan girl is sent to live with her uncle on the Yorkshire moors and discovers renewed life, for herself and her sickly cousin, in bringing her dead aunt’s secret garden back to...

Cost: $15–$18

Where:
The Secret Garden
47 W Main St.
Middletown, DE  19709
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Sponsor: The Everett Theatre
Telephone: 302-540-8561
Contact Name: Chris Everett
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Location: St. Mark’s High School, 2501 Pike Creek Road, Wilmington Time: Registration: 11:30 a.m. Race: 12:30 p.m. Fee: $25 (until Thursday, Feb. 11), $35 after and day of event...

Where:
, DE

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Location: Beebe Healthcare’s Medical Center, 424 Savannah Road, Lewes Date: Saturday, Feb. 13 (and the second Saturday of each month) Time: 9 a.m. Fee: Free For more...

Where:
, DE

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Ditch the winter whites for a world of dazzling color at Longwood Gardens, where you can stroll through thousands of orchids in bloom. Kennett Square, www.longwoodgardens.org 

Where:
, DE

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A successful writer of Broadway thrillers is struggling to overcome a dry spell when he receives a script from a student —a potential Broadway hit. Thereafter suspense...

Where:
, DE

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Regional artists Carol Tippit Woolworth, Catherine Drabkin, Pahl Alexander Hluchan, Colleen Randall and Dan Jackson explore the concept of place—physical, emotional and spiritual—in...

Where:
, DE

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