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.
photograph by Scott Nathan
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.”