“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.”