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 2017

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View map »


Sponsor: Delaware Division of the Arts
Telephone: 302-577-8278
Contact Name: Roxanne Stanulis
Website »

More information

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Cost: free

Where:
The Station Gallery
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View map »


Telephone: 302-654-8638
Website »

More information

Uncover the facts, fictions, and fossils of Dinosaur Revolution as you LIVE LARGE in reptilian role-play activities. Undertake three Mesozoic Missions spanning 150 million years and mimic dinosaur...

Cost: Free with Admission

Where:
Delaware Museum of Natural History
4840 Kennett Pike
Newark, DE  19807
View map »


Telephone: 302-658-9111
Website »

More information

Uncover the facts, fictions, and fossils of Dinosaur Revolution as you LIVE LARGE in reptilian role-play activities at the Delaware Museum of Natural History's newest special exhibit. Undertake...

Cost: Adults: $9 Children (3-17): $7 Seniors (60+): $8 Under 3: FREE Members: FREE

Where:
Delaware Museum of Natural History
4840 Kennett Pike
Wilmington, DE  19807
View map »


Website »

More information

Between 1917 and 1944, the Society of Independent Artists (SIA) hosted annual exhibitions for its members. Famous painters and Sunday painters were able to exhibit their work in enormous open shows...

Cost: Free with Museum admission

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »


Website »

More information

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Cost: $18-$20

Where:
Cinema Art Theater
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View map »


Sponsor: Rehoboth Beach Film Society
Telephone: 302-645-9095
Contact Name: Jeri Kaplan
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Nanticoke Weight Loss & General Surgery will host bariatric support groups on Tuesday, Feb. 7 from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. and Monday, Feb. 27 from 6 to 7 p.m. in the Medical Staff...

Cost: FREE

Where:
Nanticoke Memorial Hospital
801 Middleford Road
Seaford, DE  19973
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Telephone: 302-536-5395
Contact Name: Nanticoke Weight Loss & General Surgery
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Tutto Fresco has live entertainment every Friday night from 6:30–9:30 p.m. Call for details. http://tuttofrescode.com/

Where:
Tutto Fresco
514 Philadelphia Pike
Wilmington, DE  19809
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Meeting every Friday, Bayhealth Kent General Hospital, 640 s. State Street, Dover, 7:30 pm., Private Dining Room #3 in the basement. For those who have, or think they may have a gambling problem....

Cost: 0.00

Where:
Bayhealth Kent General Hospital
640 S. State Street
Private Dining Room #3
Dover, DE  19901
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Telephone: 800-855-2CALLGA
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JOHNNY WINTER ALL STAR BAND The Johnny Winter Band has been wowing audiences everywhere with incredible music played by Johnny's band and guest artists. Join Paul Nelson and The JW Band in a...

Cost: $20 ADV + $22 DOS + FEES

Where:
World Cafe Live Wilmington
500 N Market St
Wilmington, DE  19801
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Telephone: 215-222-1400
Contact Name: MP Intern
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Now in its 8th year, the PAWS for People Conference/Annual Meeting is designed for those who love their pets, are pet enthusiasts or who want to learn more about the world of Pet Therapy. This...

Cost: $45 through 2/14; $50 after that date; $5 discount for PAWS members.

Where:
Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children
1600 Rockland Road
Wilmington, DE  19803
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Sponsor: PAWS for People
Telephone: 302-351-5622
Contact Name: Clarice Ritchie
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February 3 – 25 Group Show featuring still life paintings in oil by Rosemary Castiglioni; gestural animal paintings by Gay Freeborn; and plein air landscapes from Zion National Park,...

Cost: free

Where:
The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
Greenville, DE  19807
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Telephone: 302-654-8638
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Uncover the facts, fictions, and fossils of Dinosaur Revolution as you LIVE LARGE in reptilian role-play activities at the Delaware Museum of Natural History's newest special exhibit. Undertake...

Cost: Adults: $9 Children (3-17): $7 Seniors (60+): $8 Under 3: FREE Members: FREE

Where:
Delaware Museum of Natural History
4840 Kennett Pike
Wilmington, DE  19807
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Uncover the facts, fictions, and fossils of Dinosaur Revolution as you LIVE LARGE in reptilian role-play activities. Undertake three Mesozoic Missions spanning 150 million years and mimic dinosaur...

Cost: Free with Admission

Where:
Delaware Museum of Natural History
4840 Kennett Pike
Newark, DE  19807
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Telephone: 302-658-9111
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The Wilmington & Western Railroad's Hockessin Art Festival is a fundraising effort to benefit the railroad. Over 25 artists will be displaying and selling limited-edition...

Cost: $3 for art show admission; $5 for train fare (children under 2 are free)

Where:
Hockessin Memorial Hall
606 Yorklyn Road
Hockessin, DE  19707
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Sponsor: Wilmington & Western Railroad
Telephone: 302-998-1930
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Are you interested in learning more about what volunteer opportunities the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation has to offer? Consider attending our Volunteer Open House at our shipyard in Wilmington, DE from...

Cost:

Where:
Kalmar Nyckel Foundation
1124 E 7th St
Wilmington, DE  19801
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Between 1917 and 1944, the Society of Independent Artists (SIA) hosted annual exhibitions for its members. Famous painters and Sunday painters were able to exhibit their work in enormous open shows...

Cost: Free with Museum admission

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
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DCM Guests will experience, engage in, and take home different STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Mathmatics) activities run by Science Ambassadors from the Charter School of Wilmington...

Cost: $8.75

Where:
Delaware Children's Museum
550 Justison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
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Telephone: 302-425-4890
Contact Name: Joe Valenti
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The Rehoboth Beach Film Society announces the next play in the exciting series of National Theatre Live screenings. National Theatre Live is a groundbreaking project that presents the best of...

Cost: $18-$20

Where:
Cinema Art Theater
17701 Dartmouth Drive, #2
Lewes, DE
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Sponsor: Rehoboth Beach Film Society
Telephone: 302-645-9095
Contact Name: Jeri Kaplan
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Build a hydraulic-powered machine while learning about pressure, water, and power. Families work together to solve science mysteries and engineering challenges. Activities are included in regular...

Cost: Adults: $14, Children 6-14: $5, Children 5 and under and Hagley Members: FREE

Where:
Hagley Museum and Library
200 Hagley Creek Road
Wilmington, DE  19807
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Nanticoke Weight Loss & General Surgery will host bariatric support groups on Tuesday, Feb. 7 from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. and Monday, Feb. 27 from 6 to 7 p.m. in the Medical Staff...

Cost: FREE

Where:
Nanticoke Memorial Hospital
801 Middleford Road
Seaford, DE  19973
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Telephone: 302-536-5395
Contact Name: Nanticoke Weight Loss & General Surgery
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An evening of entertainment and hope at the 2017 Wilmington Heart Ball. Each year, community members, medical professionals and corporate leaders come together to celebrate the lifesaving work of...

Cost:

Where:
Chase Center on the Riverfront
815 Justison St
Wilmington, DE  19801
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Join us for an unforgettable evening of entertainment and hope at the 2017 Wilmington Heart Ball.  Each year, community members, medical professionals and corporate leaders come together to...

Cost: $175

Where:
Chase Center on the Riverfront
815 Justison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
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Sponsor: American Heart Association
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We are a mixture of some of the best and hardest working musicians in the Philadelphia area specializing in a mashup concept, fusing the music of The Allman Brothers Band and The Grateful Dead....

Cost: $10 + FEES

Where:
World Cafe Live- Wilmington
500 North Market Street
Wilmington, DE
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Mo Lowda & The Humble is a three piece Indie-rock group from Philadelphia, PA. The band has created a unique musical style combining various genre's ranging from garage rock to jazz fusion;...

Cost: $10 + FEES

Where:
World Cafe Live- Wilmington
500 North Market Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
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