Black History Month was not designated to separate, segregate, or detach one culture from another. Instead, it’s meant to educate, inform, and celebrate the resilient roots of African Americans collectively. It is a month about sharing and restoring one’s identity through their own past time. And what better way to rejoice than with the Grammy award-winning, old-time string band, Carolina Chocolate Drops (CCD)? The band will play the Brooklyn Arts Center on February 26th.
A multi-talented and multi-instrumental, country-blues band from Durham, North Carolina, CCD has altered since their formation in 2005; however, one thing remains the same: their shared love for music that tells a story—that has soul. Rhiannon Giddens (lead singer/banjo) is the glue that holds the group together; she’s been there from the start. Hubby Jenkins joined the lineup in 2011, and plays five-string banjo, guitar, mandolin, and bones. They even added a beatboxer, Adam Matta, along with touring cellist Leyla McCalla in 2012. After the amicable departure of founding members Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson, CCD welcomed Rowan Corbett (guitar/snare/bones/cajon/djembe), and Malcolm Parson (cello) to bring an even more virtuosic approach to their music. A band that loves to be onstage, they rotate vocals and are well-known for trading instruments.
Although most of their traditional music comes inspired by generations of African-American folk, CCD don’t see it as just a one-way street. “It’s everybody’s music,” Hubby Jenkins confirms. “That’s the story it tells.”
Old-time fiddler and songster Joe Thompson encouraged the original trio of Giddens, Flemons, and Robinson to learn these landmark tunes and apply different stories to the music. The three young musicians would jam with Thompson every Thursday evening. The 80-year-old musician inherited his bluesy style from a own group of peers; he wanted to pass on the same lessons he learned to upcoming generations.
Starting out mostly as a tribute to their teacher, The Carolina Chocolate Drops played shows to spread Thompson’s music beyond the living room and into the public. The crowds have responded favorably and are just as electric as they are diverse, shouting along with the lyrics. In fact, CCD make it their will and testament to transform any concert into an exuberant, educational fete. It’s an element they bring to the stage unlike any other: lessons shared and experienced by a variety of fans young and old.
“Our thing is getting out there and celebrating the history that goes along with [this music],” Jenkins says. “We want to educate these people but entertain them at exactly the same time. Something like, ‘You’re gonna learn today!’”
The audience sings through the pain and struggles of the African American people through old-time classics, like “Snowden’s Jig.” Haunting, the tune is off CCD’s 2010 Grammy winner for Best Traditional Folk Album, “Genuine Negro Gig.” Sans lyrics, it carries a distinct history surpassing a century; it utilizes tempos and measures intead of words to mark its stamp on time.
Legend has it the Snowdens, a family of African American string musicians, actually inspired many songs that have been made famous by other artists. This large household of musically gifted children has even been hailed the originators of Dan Emmett’s famous song, “Dixie’—widely known as a tune that epitomizes American musicality in the 19th century. Emmet “borrowed” another song from the Snowdens, “Genuine Negro Gig,” but made it his own. Although the Snowdens never got any recognition for their compositions, CCD compensate by playing Emmett’s jig exactly the same; yet, they renamed it after its true creators. Hence, “Snowden’s Jig.”
The Carolina Chocolate Drops carry forth the same mentality in writing originals. Stories become incorporated into their music but they don’t just apply to the past. “We like to play more traditional tunes than we do originals live, but when our own songs come up, we play with just as much emotion,” Jenkins confirms. “We don’t shy away from them.”
One of the prevalent messages in CCD’s popular “Country Girl” uncovers the truth of identity. Off of their latest studio album, “Leaving Eden,” this homeland anthem exhibits a contagious banjo riff and a gracious violin track, lying over a beat unmistakably inspired by classic hip-hop. As the instruments provide that sepia-soaked feel, the background, with a subtle rhythm of a record spinning, brings the song into the 21st century. Giddens’ lyrics echo life and the love of living in the South. She speaks of home and the universal restoration of the true self.
“All day I dream about a place I’ve been/a place where the skin I’m in feels like it’s supposed to be,” Giddens sings, reinforcing the fact that no matter what race, ethnicity or cultural descent, we all yearn to belong; to share our trials and tribulations, through the wreckage of our past. “We understand we’re alive today, and from that alone, our music has a modern edge,” Jenkins says.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops don’t deny their songwriting has been kindled and redecorated by current artists, as well as from ones throughout their childhood. “And that’s how it becomes ours,” Jenkins says.
Though they have released five CDs and one EP, they still refer to themselves as a touring band. They’ve even shared stage time with greats like Taj Mahal and Bob Dylan.
“It’s just what we do,” Jenkins says. “This isn’t an album year, but we’re getting ready to start focusing on the aspects of a new record.”
Because CCD are so performance-driven, they react to the audience and especially the vibes permeating each concert. Thus, the show becomes all-encompassing. More so, CCD ground themselves in their ancestors’ shoes. They use different instruments that help to instill more credibility to their messages. The main melody-maker, and nearly always the NC Piedmont brand of old-time, is the banjo, which essentially came from Africa. Bones are added, consisting of sections of large rib and lower leg bones. Wooden sticks take on this shape, too, and are most often used today. Bones are unique for their simplicity in percussion, similar to the cajon and djembe.
The Peruvian cajon—a six-sided box—gets played by slapping the front or rear faces with bare hands or fingers, pure and natural. Originating from West Africa, the djembe is a rope-tuned, skin-covered goblet drum, played with bare hands. According to the Bamana people in Mali, the name comes from a saying, “Everyone gather together in peace.” This ancient translation speaks volumes.
Culture, although impossible to define, is an aspect of life that becomes real through universal compassion and comprehension. The Carolina Chocolate Drops don’t just represent African American tradition and folklore, they stand tall for the relativity of strength. By characterizing the parallels between past and modern-day struggles through music, they manage to cultivate a world where people gather in peace and accept one another wholly rather than simply turn the other cheek—even if only for a few hours.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops
Brooklyn Arts Center • 516 N. 4th St.
Wed., February 26th, 7 p.m.
Tickets: $23 adv. / $28 day of / VIP/balcony $33