When MacArthur “Genius” Grant recipient and Nashville star Rhiannon Giddens picks up her banjo to play, she is not just preparing to make beautiful music. She is simultaneously teaching people about the African origins of the quintessentially American instrument, bringing back songs that have long been sidelined and defending minstrelsy.
Yes, this proudly African American woman from North Carolina, who was a co-founder of the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, avidly defends the music that fueled minstrel shows, which were usually performed by whites donning blackface.
Giddens sings and plays minstrel banjo, octave violin, and viola. Her latest album, “There Is No Other” with Italian multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi, on which he plays piano, accordion, frame drum, tamburello, lute, cello banjo, daf and colascione, reflects the common origins of global music, whether American, Irish or Italian.
The recording, which they also released on vinyl, was produced by Joe Henry and recorded and tracked during “an intensely productive five-day period in Dublin, Ireland. It primarily features only Giddens and Turrisi playing one or two instruments together.”
The resulting recording “is at once a condemnation of ‘othering’ and a celebration of the spread of ideas, connectivity, and shared experience. The array of instruments reveals the sonic ties that bind between African, Arabic, European and American cultures.”
The album is an alluring and emotive mix of original songs penned by Giddens, such as the haunting introductory tune “Ten Thousand Voices” and her personal spiritual, “He Will See You Through,” and a soulful set of diverse interpretations from Ola Belle Reed’s “I’m Gonna Write Me a Letter” and Oscar Brown Jr.’s “Brown Baby” to the Italian traditional Tarantella tune “Pizzica di San Vito.”
On the album, the musicians trace the “overlooked movement of sounds from Africa and the Arabic world and their influence on European and American music, and illuminates the universality of music and the commonality of the human experience.”
Giddens recently told the Irish Times: “It’s all about movement, for both of us … movements of human beings and how we affect each other. If you just look at our range of instruments, where they’ve come from and how they’ve traveled across the world, it’s pretty amazing. The way that both of us approach music is very similar because we’re both educated about where the music is coming from. But when it comes to playing, we’re both just playing what we feel.”
Her latest venture, which included a stop at the Kennedy Center on her tour, falls within Giddens’ mission as an artist known to excavate music from the past to “reveal bold and candid truths about our present.”
She has performed for the Obamas at the White House and acted in two seasons of the hit television series Nashville, in addition to being profiled by “CBS Sunday Morning,” the New York Times and NPR’s “Fresh Air,” among others.
Her acclaimed solo albums, “Tomorrow is My Turn” (along with the EP “Factory Girl,” produced by T Bone Burnett) and “Freedom Highway,” received three Grammy Award nominations. Her legendary work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops received a Grammy in 2010.
Giddens is also featured in Ken Burns’ “Country Music” series on PBS this fall and will perform at concerts tied to the series in Nashville and New York City.
Another collaborative project, “Songs of Our Native Daughters,” features Giddens and tells the stories of historic Black womanhood and survival.