Carolina Chocolate Drops: Tradition And Modern Twists
This interview was originally broadcast on March 1, 2010.
Carolina Chocolate Drops formed after all three members -- Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson -- attended the 2005 Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, N.C. The annual event brings together folk musicians, student musicians and African-American folk-music enthusiasts at Appalachian State University for a weekend of music and classes.
After attending the festival, Giddens, Flemons and Robinson decided to sit in on a weekly jam session with Joe Thompson, an 86-year-old country fiddler well known for his distinctive style.
"First of all, Joe's bowing is really, really interesting ... which is something common among fiddle players, at least around [North Carolina]," Justin Robinson tells Fresh Air host Terry Gross. "Sometimes it's called the double shuffle ... I've heard fiddlers call it sewing cloth. It's sort of this forward-and-back motion that is going forward all at the same time that's making this really great rhythmic kinda thing that you have to really work very hard to get. And also, Joe plays notes that are not in the Western scale, which is actually kind of great."
Thompson inspired Giddens, Flemons and Robinson to create Carolina Chocolate Drops, a band which combines traditional string-band elements with several modern twists.
The group's newest album, Genuine Negro Jig, features a series of traditional instruments, including the banjo, fiddle, kazoo, bones and jug. Its other albums include Dona Got a Rambin' Mind, Sankofa Strings and Heritage.
Giddens, on playing the kazoo:
I didn't really think of it as a serious instrument until Dom brought it in. ... There's a whole tradition of jug-band music where people are playing the kazoo as a serious horn -- and playing it really, really well -- and so he suggested that I start to play it. And then I gave it a shot. ... If you have some vocal ideas of what you want to do, it's just like the jug. ... You have to have in your mind what you're going to do and have to be able to produce that with your voice before you even have the kazoo.
Robinson and Flemons on playing what was traditionally considered white string-band music as black musicians:
I guess for me ... there were certainly lots of people playing in Chapel Hill ... but I certainly was the only black person at the time doing it. But that was not going to stop me. I think it's characteristic of all of us, that we were sort of misfits in our own rights when we grew up. Doing something just because it wasn't cool or because you weren't supposed to -- we certainly aren't any stranger to that.
I didn't get into the black string-band music until I went to the black banjo gathering and ... had a life-changing experience. But I knew about blues and jazz and jug-band music, but I didn't associate any of that with the white fiddle tune music, per se, even though I could guess that they were maybe related.
Rhiannon on playing to mainly white audiences:
It's not frustrating, because we see the numbers [of black audience members] growing. In terms of me, anyway, there was a small, tiny number of black folk who would come to the show ... but we've seen that number grow as they've told their friends and we've gotten more of a profile within the black community. Ebony and Jet.com did something on us, and we got to do the movie with Denzel Washington ["The Great Debaters"] that we were in for four seconds, but we have had black people come up to us at shows and say, "I saw you in the movie and came to the show because of that." So all of those things, we've definitely seen the numbers grow. ... There is a black folk music audience. They're just very small. They come to our shows. But it's small, and it's something we do hope to see grow and we have seen grow.
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