With their 2010 Nonesuch debut, Genuine Negro Jig—which garnered a Best Traditional Folk Album Grammy last year—the Carolina Chocolate Drops proved that the old-time, fiddle and banjo-based music they’d so scrupulously researched and passionately performed could be a living, breathing, ever-evolving sound. Starting with material culled from the Piedmont region of the Carolinas, they sought to freshly interpret this work, not merely recreate it, highlighting the central role African-Americans played in shaping our nation’s popular music from its beginnings more than a century ago. The virtuosic trio’s approach was provocative and revelatory. Their concerts, The New York Times declared, were “an end-to-end display of excellence… They dip into styles of Southern black music from the 1920s and ’30s—string-band music, jug-band music, fife and drum, early jazz—and beam their curiosity outward. They make short work of their instructive mission and spend their energy on things that require it: flatfoot dancing, jug playing, shouting.”
On Leaving Eden, produced by Nashville stalwart Buddy Miller—the go-to guy for artists ranging from Robert Plant to Emmylou Harris—and recorded in his home studio, the Carolina Chocolate Drops illustrate their own adaptability to growth and change as the original lineup expands from three to five players for this recording and their new repertoire incorporates more blues, jazz and folk balladry alongside brilliantly rendered string-band tunes. The group’s founding members Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemons, both singers and multi-instrumentalists, were used to working together (CCD had evolved out of their previous group, Sankofa Strings) but they needed back-up for their second full-length Nonesuch disc. Help came in the form of three new players: beat-boxer Adam Matta, introduced to the band by their friends in NYC’s Luminescent Orchestrii (with whom they’d released a live EP on Nonesuch in 2011) and Brooklyn-based guitarist, banjo player and singer Hubby Jenkins and New Orleans-based cellist Leyla McCalla, both of whom the band had befriended via the Music Maker Relief Foundation, which helps to support elder roots artists and encourage young talent. Jenkins is now a full-time member of the group; Matta, after touring with CCD throughout 2011, will make occasional guest appearances; and McCalla will round out CCD’s 2012 touring line-up.
Flemons points out: “There’s a new diversity that comes from the new ensemble. My thought process of how I put together songs for the Carolina Chocolate Drops now is more like working with a jazz group. I could make it work in any sort of way. Based on the players that you have, you can do different things with the arrangements. It was helpful that Hubby also played guitar. Up to then, I was the only one in the group who worked with chords. Rhiannon plays her instruments melodically instead of around chords and the rhythm of the chords. I had been working on ‘Mahalla’ [an arrangement of a joyfully upbeat piece from spoon-wielding South African slide guitarist and YouTube phenomenon Hannes Coetzee] for a while on my own, just on the banjo, and I would have liked to have guitar on it too, but I couldn’t get anyone to back me up. Hubby happened to know the song as well, so that track came out of Hubby being there. Adam brought a great, pumping bass vocal part to ‘Po’ Black Sheep,’ and ‘Country Girl’ also has Adam’s particular flavor—along with Leyla’ s cello.”
Title track “Leaving Eden”—written by Giddens’ friend and fellow Greensboro, North Carolina resident, Laurelynn Dossett—had long been on Giddens’ to-do list, but until now it hadn’t found a place in CCD’s set. With this new lineup, its time had come, and the song became the veritable centerpiece of the album. McCalla’s cello lends gravity to this elegiac number about the falling fortunes of a mill town, sung with plainspoken eloquence by Giddens, one of several stunning vocal performances from this Oberlin Conservatory-trained singer.
Giddens brings a hip hop-style, declamatory flair to her self-penned “Country Girl,” egged on by Matta’s beat-boxing; she takes an overtly bluesy turn on Ethel Waters’ wry 1920′s-era confession, “No Man’s Mama;” and concludes the album with a powerful a capella rendering of “Pretty Bird” by the late Hazel Dickens, the West Virginian bluegrass singer-songwriter and activist (and spouse of roots music champion Mike Seeger). Giddens admits, “It’s not in the style I usually sing in. I first heard that song about seven years ago. I was in Scotland and I checked this CD out of the Edinburgh library, and I thought it was awesome. This song is not one I perform a lot because it’s so intense; I’ve only done it on stage a handful of times. Hazel had just passed recently, so I pulled the song out and said, ‘Hey, Buddy, how about this?’”
Miller had come recommended by several colleagues whose opinions Flemons and Giddens trusted, but, for Flemons, knowing that Miller had produced the late Solomon Burke’s Nashville album sealed the deal. The easy-going Miller served as editor and arbiter over the course of two separate weeks of sessions, as the revamped group pored through existing repertoire and new ideas. The performances were all captured live in Miller’s home studio, with everyone playing together in one room, resulting in a recording that has a palpable warmth and immediacy as these players found an instinctive, unified groove. As Flemons recalls, “When we did the first session with Hubby, Adam, Rhiannon and myself, we just cut everything we’d put together in the short period we had. From there, we had about half a record’s worth of stuff and we all had to take a step back and think about how we wanted to approach the rest of it. When we went back to Nashville, we rented an old house and did a week-long rehearsal. It was a melee of tunes, everything we were thinking about. We had about 18 tunes on top of the ones we’d already recorded and we gave them to Buddy; he sat down and figured out what pieces he thought would be the most effective. We went back to the studio in Buddy’s house again and did another week’s worth of recording, and that was the rest of the record. We worked until the last possible minute.”
The neophyte Jenkins, who learned his craft busking on the streets and in the subways of New York City, admits the first session, for him, was initially “very nerve wracking. I had only been in the group a month. I was still getting to know these people and they were getting to know me. It was a week when we got to really dig into each other’s musical philosophies and the way we think about music and approach music and how we can mix those together and just bond. And the first recording session turned out to be just great. Buddy’s style is very open, he’ll let something happen and watch something grow. That was definitely necessary for us on that session. Before the next session we spent a week where we just played together. We each brought some songs and sat around every day and when through them, bounced ideas off each other, got excited about things. And I felt like that was really the key to creating the band’s sound, that one week in Nashville when we had the house together and just played every day. By the time we came in for the second recording session, we had a more concrete idea of who we were as a band and what we wanted to do with that sound. And Buddy Miller was ready to take it on.”
Though often striking out in new directions, CCD return to familiar turf with tracks like “Riro’s House,” a traditional piece they’d learned from their mentor, 90 year-old North Carolinian fiddler Joe Thompson, and “West End Blues,” paying tribute to the venerable Piedmont guitarist and banjo player Etta Baker. Once again they break out such unique instrumentation as jugs and bones; Giddens records for the first time with a 5-string cello (or bass) banjo, while Flemons employs his quills, a pan-pipe instrument of African origin with a distinctive Irish pennywhistle lilt to it
“We want to remain true to the roots of how we started,” Giddens explains. “We’re always going to have a string band on our records. But we don’t want to just do Piedmont style fiddle-banjo-guitar tunes; there’s more to our musical life than that. We grow in a healthy, slow way that reflects our true development as musicians and as a band.” Over the past year, CCD have played to a remarkably wide range of concert-goers, with appearances at the Newport Jazz Festival, the Grand Ole Opry, the Cambridge Folk Festival in London and as part of the Dave Matthews Band Caravan, among many other events. Continues Giddens, “We’ve held on to our original fans and we’ve now got a lot more younger people coming to our shows and more people of color, which is fabulous. We’ve been working off that actively, doing stand-up shows where we cut the talking down a bit, keep the tunes coming, and get everybody dancing. And we still have our shows where we sit and talk about the material, do our slow waltzes and stuff like that. It keeps everything flowing.”
— Michael Hill
“I left Arizona because I knew the music would take me somewhere – but I had no idea!”
You don’t have to be born in the Piedmont region of North Carolina to feel the music in your blood. For Flemons, it all began with a PBS documentary about the history of rock and roll. “There was an episode on the folk music revival that got me wanting to do it,” Flemons explains. “At the time, Dylan albums were inexpensive so I started buying them. From there, I read about the folk scene in New York City and I tried to do that in Phoenix. I began busking and playing in coffee houses.”
The Arizona native calls this a natural progression backwards. Before moving into music, Flemons wrote short stories and appeared at poetry slams, including two national events, and he helped to establish NorAz Poets, a non-profit that organizes slams within the state. Building upon his fascination with the sixties and his interest in playing guitar, he started to collect recordings of the early masters and used them as teachers. He then added banjo to the mix, going for the sound of the old-time players: “A friend let me borrow a 5-string banjo with a missing string. He didn’t like the 4th string. So I learned how to frail and I did an approximation of claw-hammer without the fifth string. I didn’t even know it was essential to have a fifth string!”
Flemons clearly shares a flare for the intrepid with his band-mates. While still a student, he headed off for Encanto Park in Phoenix and jumped into Wednesday night music jams. If, at times, he was the only young player and the only black man with a banjo, Flemons didn’t care. At the park, he met fellow banjo player and accomplished percussionist Sule Gregory Wilson, who told him about plans for a Black Banjo Gathering in North Carolina. “At first it was just supposed to be a one-day fish fry,” Flemons recalls, “so I didn’t see how I could afford to go. Then I saw the list growing and I figured I had to get there!”
The Black Banjo Gathering in April 2005 turned out to be the motivator that shifted Flemons’ life from Arizona busker to Piedmont string-band musician. He was introduced to players he’d only heard on recordings, such as Algie Mae Hinton (blues and buck-dancer), Clif Ervin (bones), Daniel Jatti (African gourd banjo or ekontane), and idols like Mike Seeger, co-founder of the influential New Lost City Ramblers, who’d spent a lifetime both preserving and innovating. He learned about blackbanjo.com and met Piedmont string-band legend Joe Thompson, who was intrigued, to put it kindly, by Flemons’ peculiar banjo picking style.
Compelled to move to the Piedmont, Flemons began to collaborate with Rhiannon Giddens, who formed the old time/African roots band Sankofa Strings with him and Gregory Wilson, and he followed her to Joe Thompson’s house where Justin Robinson was playing. Without even planning, Dom’s music revival dream became real: “It gave me a different perspective, going from being someone who was learning from recordings to sitting next to the artists and hearing them talk and seeing how mannerisms are translated into the music.”
On stage, Flemons rolls from one instrument to another with a fearless attitude toward tradition and repertoire. As he now reflects, “The unique experience I had getting into the old-time music really informed the way I have been able to process a lot of it. A lot of people ask me, how do you do this old-time music and have it stay contemporary to you as a person? What people forget is that on stage I might be playing music that’s 100 years-old, but that doesn’t mean my ears are only listening to music that’s 100 years-old. I got into this via old rock and roll, sixties rock and folk and went back from there. A couple of things got me into thinking about how to smash all of it together, particularly Mike Seeger’s way of taking different kinds of traditional music and putting them together to make new music. And being into the songsters like Lead Belly and Henry Thomas, I heard them and knew they weren’t doing straight blues like Robert Johnson and Skip James. I always wondered how it all fit, so when I met Joe and found out about the black string-band stuff, that was where the connections started happening – these songsters fit into this broader string band and folk music tradition and then you have things like blues and jazz, and even gospel music, wrapped up in it.”
Carolina Chocolate Drops’ 2010 Nonesuch Records debut, Genuine Negro Jig, garnered a Best Traditional Folk Album Grammy Award and the trio’s shows were praised wherever they performed, including such events as the Newport Folk Festival, Celtic Connections in Glasgow, and a groundbreaking appearance at the Grand Ole Opry. As the Times of London remarked, “In the end, a standing ovation was the only possible response. Anything, you sense, is possible now.” Despite a sudden lineup change in early 2011, after Robinson decided to embark full-time on a solo career, that comment still holds true: anything is indeed possible. In fact, with new member Hubby Jenkins, touring musician Leyla McCalla, and the participation of beat-boxer Adam Matta on CCD’s second full-length Nonesuch disc, Leaving Eden, Flemons says, “There’s a new diversity that comes from the new ensemble. My thought process of how I put together songs with the group is more like a jazz group. I can make it work in any sort of way. It was different than we had worked before. We had worked as the same ensemble for five years. Having a new group was a different experience, with different things we could do in running the band and handling the arrangements. Everything is different and news. And it’s very exciting for everybody involved.”
“We’re first and foremost entertainers and musicians. says Rhiannon Giddens of Carolina Chocolate Drops. “The other stuff enriches and deepens the experience, but if you can’t enjoy the music, we aren’t doing our job.”
The North Carolina native’s energy and enthusiasm is hard to contain. Talents and fascinations, whims and obsessions tumble over each other and pour out in a fiery stage performance rooted in disciplined virtuosity, her operatic training channeled into the freewheeling world of old-time music. This is her story in a nutshell: Giddens’ father was a classically-trained singer whose legacy was a warning not to study voice before the age of 16. So Giddens waited until she was 16 and set off for choral camp. It was great, so she applied to the prestigious Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio and soon found herself plunging into the deepest part of the classical vocal river — opera. “I did five operas and three main roles,” Giddens summarizes, “I got into it pretty hardcore.” So hardcore that she decided to take some time off. That’s when Giddens “eased into the folk world,” as she puts it, though, in truth, she had already been sparked by a flyer at Oberlin advertising English Country Dancing. “I’m a Jane Austin fan and that’s what they do in her books. Turned out to be contra.”
Back home, with a day job in graphic design, Giddens began to attend weekly contra dances, moving rapidly from dancing to calling to actually playing the music: “I decided I wanted to play fiddle, so I went into a store in Greensboro and picked one off the wall, gave it a draw and bought it. It was a cheap Chinese fiddle – hard to play, but that toughens you up.”
Hands on the fiddle, Giddens began to mix it up, singing with her sister, Lalenja Harrington; joining up with Cherise McCloud (“who is a Mezzo”); forming a Celtic band, Gaelywand; and entering Scottish music competitions. She read about North Carolinian fiddler Joe Thompson in Cece Conway’s African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia, saw him perform, “and went down to his house and kinda played along.” Then Joe had a stroke but, interest sparked, Giddens heard about blackbanjos.com and hooked up with Sule Greg Wilson and Tom Thomas doing web work for the Black Banjo Gathering. After the gathering, Giddens added Sankofa Strings, an old time/African roots band with Sule and Dom Flemons, to her list; exchanged contact info with Justin Robinson: and heard that the indefatigable Joe was having music sessions at his house again, which led to the formation of Carolina Chocolate Drops. At the same time, she followed up on an invitation from Daniel Laemouahuma Jatta to visit Gambia, got a gig as a singing hostess at the Macaroni Grill, and saved up the money for a trip to Africa. By 2006 the Carolina Chocolate Drops were moving to the top of the list. Four years later, the band was a full-time job – along with a new daughter who is already a veteran road warrior.
CCD’s 2010 Nonesuch Records debut, Genuine Negro Jig – the acclaimed major-label follow-up to the group’s two Music Maker Relief Foundation-released discs, Dona Got a Ramblin Mind (2006) and Heritage (2008)– was not only critically acclaimed but, in February 2011, it garnered a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album. This accolade marked an extraordinary start to what would become the most demanding year in the creative life of Giddens and CCD co-founder Flemons. In early 2011, Robinson decided to pursue his solo work full-time and the remaining CCD members had to quickly try to regroup without him.
Now, with the expansive new Leaving Eden completed, Giddens can take a deep breath and admit, “You can’t see what’s around the corner. so we did what was in front of us. The people that we worked with – Hubby Jenkins, Leyla McCalla and Adam Matta – all added so much to the record and they were so open minded and willing to go down different roads. It was really amazing. With their support, they really made it possible for us to do this, adding great things so that Dom and I could hunker down and make a record we were really happy with. Over the last year we also got a lot of opportunities to record on outside projects with T-Bone Burnett, the producer Jac Holzman , and the Chieftains. There were a lot of challenges that came up and we said, let’s do it. We were giving it our best shot and we did that all year and just about everything panned out.” The results can be heard on the Burnett-helmed Hunger Games soundtrack, the Holzman-produced Chimes of Freedom, Amnesty International’s Bob Dylan Tribute, and the Chieftain’s 50th Anniversary disc, Voice Of Ages.
Among the highlights of a year that took this expanded lineup of CCD across the U.S. and around Europe was a special commission from Chicago’s Old Town School of Music to celebrate through music and dance the black roots of vaudeville. The collaborative show, illustrating how deftly CCD can entertain as they educate, premiered in November, furthering CCD’s ongoing discourse about the African-American role in popular music. Says Giddens, “The more digging you do, the more you realize how amazingly mixed everything has been since the beginning. I’m really getting into minstrel-era music and the tunes are remarkable. One will be a straight up Irish jig and another will be a crazy syncopated funk thing that’s clearly an African vibe. Then there are these tunes that are a combination of the two. The roots of American popular music are so fascinating and a lot of this music is just still languishing, waiting to be done on a bigger scale.. The minstrel stuff hasn’t had a bigger stage because of the objectionable lyrics and its history. It takes a group like us – -we’re young, we’re black, we can say that we’re going to play these tunes — to dig in and get this music back out there.”
As a fledging performer, Hubby Jenkins played in the kind of rock-oriented bands for whom covering a Bob Dylan classic was their closest brush with traditional music. But around the time this New York City native –already proficient on the alto sax, cello and bass — was finishing high school, one of his friends picked up a Howlin’ Wolf CD and Jenkins and his peers found a gateway to a hitherto unexplored world of country blues and old time music. As Jenkins recalls, “We were all crazy about Howlin’ Wolf. I remember listening to Skip James for the first time and it was the most intense music I’d heard in my entire life. That’s when I got a guitar, I quit my job, became a hobo and started to learn more about country blues. I heard Robert Johnson, Reverend Gary Davis, and Blind Willie Johnson, who became my favorite guitar player of all time.”
For Jenkins, now 26, his higher musical education started on the streets: busking became a calling. He developed his guitar and vocal craft on the sidewalks and subway platforms of New York City, performing material by those venerable artists whose work he was quickly absorbing. An ambitiously itinerant musician, he soon took his show on the road, playing on the streets of cities throughout the U.S. At home, his talent did not go unnoticed and he was welcomed on the traditional music scene – a local circuit of clubs, small theatres and coffee houses that was under the mainstream radar but thriving, especially in his home borough of Brooklyn. Search for Jenkins on youtube now and one can find a wealth of performance and workshop clips from such venues as the Jalopy Theatre and School Of Music, Banjo Jim’s, and the Brooklyn Rod and Gun Club. Jenkins performed with such groups as Ether Frolic Mob, featuring legendary East Village fiddler Peter Stampfel and John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers; Feral Foster’s Roots & Ruckus; and Eden & John’s East River String Band. During a session for guitarist Blind Boy Paxton at ERSB’s home studio, Jenkins first worked with Carolina Chocolate Drops co-founder Dom Flemons, whom Jenkins had earlier met and befriended, appropriately enough, in Washington Square Park, the Greenwich Village proving ground for New York City’s finest buskers.
Like his fellow members of Carolina Chocolate Drops, Jenkins has North Carolina roots. (The other side of his family originally hailed from Puerto Rico.) He delved into this side of his lineage further as his adult musical investigations took him from country blues into ragtime and old time music and he cultivated an interest in traditional jazz. Admits Jenkins, “It was a big awakening for me to find African Americans at the roots of American music. Our first American music was coming from the plantations, from the south. Our first American identity in pop music is coming from there. That was a really powerful idea for me and helped me get into the string band tradition and connect things more.”
After Justin Robinson had amicably parted ways with CCD, Flemons suggested Jenkins to co-founder Rhiannon Giddens, not so much as an outright replacement but as an enhancement, bringing some fresh skills to the group. He played her some of the material Jenkins and Flemons had recorded together with Paxton. Jenkins’ arrival would mark CCD’s evolution as a group. “No Man’s Mama,” for example, is a favorite of Giddens that they were finally able to realize for CCD’s second full-length Nonesuch disc Leaving Eden once Jenkins came on board, as Flemons notes: “With Hubby being able to play guitar, it’s nice to have the guitar and banjo working back and forth, bringing out some nice jazz rhythms. Hubby has a real interest in thirties jazz while I have an interest in hot music from the twenties and the tens. We have different approaches to the way we play jazz, so it’s nice to have those two halves working together. And, of course, Rhiannon sings the song great.”
Giddens concurs: “Dom knew Hubby and had been encouraging him. We keep tabs on other people in our field who do what we’re doing and when Justin decided to leave, we thought we should invite Hubby down for a little while to play and see what happens. And that worked out really well.”
A lively cover of South African slide guitarist Hannes Coetzee’s “Mahalla” also benefited from Jenkins’ presence, as did “Boodle De Bum Bum,” on which Jenkins contributes mandolin. He also encouraged the group to cut a rendition of “I Truly Understand That You Love Another Man.”
After joining the group in early 2011, Jenkins spent a week with Giddens and Flemons in which “we got to really dig into each other’s musical philosophies and the way we think about music and approach music, how we can mix those together and just bond.” Says Jenkins, “It was great to come in at this point. I was able to be a part of the process. Rhiannon and Dom had wonderful ideas of songs they wanted to tackle, things they wanted to approach. I was being inspired just being around for their brainstorming and gestation period. The band was ready for a change and just by having new members with their own ideas, it came out in a very nice way.”
The route that cellist Leyla McCalla traveled to become a regular touring member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops has been both serendipitous and circuitous. McCalla, a multi-instrumentalist who has studied cello since she was a child, was born in New York City to Haitian emigrant parents and raised in suburban New Jersey. As a teenager, she spent two years in Ghana; back in the states, she briefly enrolled at Smith College in Massachusetts before deciding to return to New York City to major in cello performance and chamber music at New York University.
After graduating from NYU, McCalla taught in New York City public schools under the auspices of the Noel Pointer Foundation, a music-education nonprofit. She backed Mos Def at Carnegie Hall during the JVC Jazz Festival in 2008 as part of a big-band concert that featured a guest turn from poet and hip-hop progenitor Gil Scott Heron. With guitarist Deborah C. Smith, she co-founded Medicine Woman, an acoustic trio that drew inspiration from traditional music – American, African, Celtic, Latin American – and explored blues, folk, funk and jazz. Their neo-soul-inflected, groove-based sound won them a fervent local following.
Despite the strides she’d made as an artist and working musician over the six years she spent in New York City following college, McCalla decided to move to New Orleans in 2010, eager to explore folk music in a more unadulterated form. That decision, she says, “gave a new lease on life to my creative soul.” McCalla performed in the French Quarter, on the streets and in the clubs, also backing musicians like banjo virtuoso Morgan O’Kane. While playing on the street, McCalla met Carolina Chocolate Drops manager Tim Duffy, who invited her to work with his North Carolina-based Music Maker Relief Foundation, which preserves the legacy of often-neglected elder traditional artists and encourages young musicians as part of its Next Generation program. Taj Mahal and the Carolina Chocolate Drops would soon count themselves among McCalla’s supporters. When CCD was preparing to record its second Nonesuch album, Leaving Eden, the group invited her to rehearse and record with them in Nashville, giving her pride of place on the album’s evocative title track.
McCalla is now a full-time touring member of Carolina Chocolate Drops and continues to develop a solo career. As part of her own repertoire, she has been exploring the folk music of her Haitian heritage and continues to work on a longstanding labor of love, setting to music the words of American poet Langston Hughes.
Five String Banjo
Derived from several different West African lutes, the banjo is the quintessential African American musical instrument. For its first 100 years, it was a “slave” instrument before slowly transitioning into the hands of Anglo practitioners. It really can play any type of music, if you only pt your mind to it. We all play Deering banjos.
Another banjo, which runs a parallel course with its five-stringed counterpart, is the plectrum. It has four strings and its own distinct style. It’s not restricted to a single key (the drone string of the five-string banjo tends to restrict playing to the corresponding key of the tuning). The plectrum is still played in old-time jazz bands and Irish music. It can be strummed or played with a plectrum (pick).
This instrument is a completely different animal to the modern banjo; popular in the early to mid 1800s, it has a skin head, wooden rim, and is fretless. It has a much deeper sound, and requires a slightly different technique, called stroke style, due to the gut (or Nylgut, imitation gut, which Rhiannon uses) strings. It is the first mass-produced style of banjo, and the first one the non-African Americans played.
Cellos go all the way back to the 16th century; this mid-sized member of the viol family has been an orchestral instrumental since its inception. What people don’t generally know is that the cello has been an integral part American string band music, especially the early years. Easier to find than a bass, (not to mention easier to carry), the cello can be found in early depictions of string bands. By the 60′s, the bass had become the defacto low sound of the string band and the cello was thought of as purely a classical instrument. That seems to be changing, and Leyla is showing the world the flexibility the cello is capable of.
Leyla McCalla – Guest Artist – Cello, 2005 Antonio Scarlatti From the Studio of Xue Chang Sun in Beijing, China
Contrary to what you might think, quills have nothing to do with a certain prickly animal. Quills are what the small panpipe were known as in the African American community; they were played with a staccato, hooting style, similar to ephing. This almost vanished style of music was recorded by only a few players, most notably Henry Thomas and Sid Hemphill. Quill playing eventually morphed into harmonica playing as exemplified by Sonny Terry and DeFord Bailey.
This two-sided drum is a staple of bands of every engre. Dom started playing percussion in his school band when he was about 10 years old. In college, he played in a country dance band in Flagstaff, Arizona, and developed his particular technique on the snare drum. Hanging it on a strap and playing with brushes, he combined a lot of the sounds you hear in fife and drum music, New Orleans jazz bands, and general head-banging.
The jug has African and Caribbean roots, but you can find several versions of the instrument in many types of music. The jug became popular in “jug bands”, first in the 1920s and then later in the ’60s. The jug itself is only a resonator for a focal bass technique. Vocal bass, like the name says, is a bass sound provided by the vocal. You push the air out of your mouth (low, middle, or high up on your palate) and adjust the note with your sinus. You can make up lots of different sounds in the style of a drum, a horn, or a bass. For example, “Georgie Buck” uses more of a horn style, while “Cornbread and Butterbeans” uses more of a bass style.
Dom and Hubby use both animal bones and wooden bones for what some might call bone “castanets.” The bones gained popularity in the minstrel shows of the late 1800s and have been used all over the world in many different types of music. When holding the bones in position, they follow the movement of the wrists and arms and make a clickety-click, clickety-clack sound reminiscent of a tap dancer. Once one gets comfortable with them, the bones follow the player’s body movements. This very elemental instrument, once mastered, can tap into the internal rhythm of a piece of music.
Dom – Bones – bone type are made by Stephen Gara
The idea of the kazoo, like so many other American instruments, originated in Africa. The modern kazoo was invented in the U.S. in the mid-1900s by a black man, ALabama Vest, who had a German fellow by the name of Thaddeus von Clegg build the first prototype. It became very popular upon its introduction, but unfortunately has descended to the status of mere toy. We would love the kazoo to regain its footing as a genuine instrument!