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Marty Lipp

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African American String Band Plucks Joy From Sorrowful Era

Posted: 03/ 5/2012 5:35 pm

It was hard times for black musicians in the decades following the Civil War, but that didn't stop them from shouting out some soulful and joyous music.

Today, the young musicians of the Carolina Chocolate Drops are reviving interest in these old tunes -- not by re-creating them as precious museum pieces, but by celebrating them -- getting smartphone-toting audiences clapping, singing and dancing to gut strings and clacking bones. Through their buoyant charisma, the Drops manage to effortlessly pluck out the brightness from an era that is stained by bigotry.

The Grammy-winning Drops are on tour now and just released their latest album on Nonesuch Records, Leaving Eden.

The group initially played old-time Piedmont music from the Carolinas, but it has expanded its musical look back at other historical -- and overlooked -- genres of African American music. The group's repertoire now spans from jug band music to early blues, jazz and what member Dom Flemons calls "pre-pre-Broadway."

At first, the group's acoustic sound might remind listeners of American country music or bluegrass, usually considered to be white rural music, but the Drops are time-traveling back further to when black musicians regularly played fiddle or banjo, often to mixed-race audiences at white square dances or black "frolics." At a recent show, guitarist Hubby Jenkins joked that a white person playing banjo in the mid-1800s was like "Vanilla Ice rapping in the 1980s."

In a recent interview, Singer Rhiannon Giddens said that the group will never be musical purists. "A majority of things will come from historical sources, just because there is just so much more there to be mined, but there's always going to be that oddball thing." On Leaving Eden, for example, the group plays with a cellist and a beat-boxer (who in concert occasionally duels with Fleming playing the historical equivalent -- a jug).

"The fact that none of us grew up playing old-time music in a certain tradition means we can pull from all traditions," said the classically trained Giddens. "It gives us a certain amount of freedom."

"We grasp for as much as we can, but when we get that, we're going to put that together from how it makes sense to us."

While the group educates its audiences about this forgotten legacy, the members are entertainers first and keep the history lessons to a minimum, even when they perform for schoolchildren. "The fact that they see black people playing a banjo and fiddle is awesome," Giddens said.

The group itself started as a tribute to the members' mentor, North Carolinian Joe Thompson, who passed away last month after a life of playing fiddle locally until he was "discovered" late in life by ethnomusicologists.

And The Drops are indeed getting these old-time sounds heard again. They performed on the soundtrack of Denzel Washington's The Great Debaters and on The Hunger Games.

"We're really happy to play for our fans and be able to do it full time," said Giddens. "If we get a larger audience to just know about the music that would be great."

Despite the technical wizardry of modern music compared to folk music, Giddens said, "A certain sense of doing it yourself has been lost, that everyone would sing a little, dance a little and play a little... We were our own entertainment... There's a small but energetic group of people trying to bring that back... [Today, it is] 'I'm going to watch someone do it.'"

The group's resurrection of these tunes has the palpable joy of discovery. Giddens noted that in many cases, "There are no recordings, sometimes just descriptions of what the music sounded like. It makes me want to get into the music that much more because that's the only connection we have."

Giddens said that though the group loves the music of the past, they are well aware of the difficult times from which it arose. "The more I learn about history," she said, "the more I'm happy to be where I am."

Performing two songs on Tavis Smiley (check out the second contemporary tune, "Hit 'em Up Style")

Carolina Chocolate Drops playing "Snowden's Jig"