Carolina Chocolate Drops will defy, and redefine, your presumptions regarding the pure power of the kazoo.
The trio, comprised of Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson, met in 2005 at the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, North Carolina. The event was dedicated to those who wished to better understand the banjo’s roots in African and African American music and history. Their music is an eclectic and lively mix of fiddle, banjo, kazoo, jug, beat boxing and (literally) the bones. String music finds its American roots in a white Appalachian tradition, and grew from the seeds of slavery for the most part. And yet Carolina Chocolate Drops have taken this seemingly tenuous foundation for an all-black band and made the music distinctly, powerfully their own.
Though they play to mostly white audiences still, Carolina Chocolate Drops have a fascinating attitude in terms of their desire to bring their music, and the history of this music’s stylistic roots, back to the black community. Although they are not quick to call themselves educators—they consider themselves musicians first—they do not shy away from the label either. Socially conscious musicians who can play a set of longhorn ribs like nobody’s business. Gotta love ‘em.
Their newest album, Genuine Negro Jig, takes its title from a manuscript written and published by a white man in the nineteenth century. In many ways their daring to use this title reminds me of the discussions we at Bitch Media inadvertently, and intentionally, provoke among our readers. Words, ideas, traditions which have traditionally been associated with and dominated by an oppressive force become a type of liberation, an opportunity for growth, and even healing, when the oppressed finds a way to take control of the discussion.
It becomes a theme, in every interview one listens to with the trio, they are asked about their chosen style of music, or titling their CD with a certain word, which has historically been considered demeaning to African Americans. String music came from an African tradition—the roots of the modern banjo would have traveled across the Atlantic in the memories of slaves and were fashioned on plantations out of gourds and string. Slaves would often play for their masters, eventually learning the violin at the behest of Irish owners (hence the significance of the CD title). Eventually, as whites musicians picked up the stringed instrument themselves, they drew large audiences by performing in minstrel shows and wearing black face. After the Civil War, black string bands rapidly disappeared; many theorized it was because these musicians wanted to distance themselves from a style of music associated so strongly with slavery and forced performance.
It is against this background that the Carolina Chocolate Drops are asked over and over to justify their choice to play this style of music. To these questions, Carolina Chocolate Drops’s response is measured and dappled with a good natured patience as they explain the beauty and possibility they heard in the strings and how they felt that it couldn’t possibly be off limits to them simply because of race. In fact, to let this music die completely would be to close a chapter of history which has its feet in both the good and the bad parts of human nature to be sure— and the three speak often about a sense of responsibility to preserve this aspect of history, of tradition and of the perseverance of a people comes through their promotion and dedication to the sounds of the strings.
The trio’s homepage is informative and rich with further information about the tradition of string bands and their own growth over the years as musicians and as African Americans. My only qualm is that you can’t sample any of their songs there, and their sound must be heard to be believed. There are several great interviews on NPR music with live performances, including studio sessions, an interview with Terry Gross and a gig on the World Café. Of course, Lala has a great sample of their studio cuts as well and their Youtube channel has some really surprisingly clear footage of live performances. (God bless free music samples… almost as good as free food samples.)
So take a chance, give Carolina Chocolate Drops a listen tonight! If you’re looking for a recommendation to get started with, one of my personal favorites is their cover of Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style” and the old-timey, kazoo-heavy “Your Baby Ain’t Sweet Like Mine”.