NEW OLD SOUNDS "We're playing stuff people haven't heard in a long time," says Rhiannon Giddens
(third from left, with Dom Flemons, Leyla McCalla, and Hubby Jenkins). "And it's coming from
traditions people just don't know a lot about anymore."
Seeing a Carolina Chocolate Drops concert is a transformative experience — and not just because of the old-time string band's immense talents and diverse instrumentation. In keeping with their desire to educate audiences about how African Americans influenced popular music in the 1920s and '30s, the band members explain the origins and lineage of nearly every tune they play. This information adds rich context and historical breadth to their music, whose banjos, fiddles, and chattering percussion are akin to a spiritual celebration. "What we do — especially seven years ago — was very new in terms of people associating it with black people," says co-founder/vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Rhiannon Giddens. "It was a big deal for a lot of people: 'Why are you guys playing banjos and fiddles?' We're working a little more of the general history as well. And the other thing is, we're playing stuff people haven't heard in a long time, and it's coming from traditions people just don't know a lot about anymore."
When the Durham, North Carolina, band formed in 2005, having an educational aspect to their music was a conscious decision. However, Giddens's background in Celtic music — and the songster experience of CCD vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Dom Flemons — made assimilating this history easy; their disparate backgrounds, in turn, manifested themselves on 2010's Grammy-winning Genuine Negro Jig, which used string-band music as a jumping-off point to explore blues, folk, jazz, and even hip-hop.
Their latest, Leaving Eden (Nonesuch), produced by Nashville vet Buddy Miller, again touches on these genres. But it's far more meticulous and ruminative, and a touch more subdued than their energetic live shows. Part of this sonic progression can be explained by lineup changes — namely, the 2011 departure of vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Justin Robinson and the addition of guitarist/banjo player Hubby Jenkins along with beat-boxer Adam Matta and touring cellist Leyla McCalla. The new members broaden the band's perspective, Giddens says.
"Hubby comes with a big repertoire of chords — he knows a lot of jazz chords and stuff that Dom doesn't necessarily keep in his repertoire — and Leyla brings a classical cello background, but also lots of different jazz rhythms and stuff she can do on the cello. She's bringing Haitian songs, and Hubby's bringing jazz songs. They're bringing things we don't necessarily have ourselves."
Leaving Eden's liner notes hew to the Carolina Chocolate Drops' education-first tradition: each song has a brief description about where it comes from, or why the band is performing it. For instance, the text alongside "Rum Mountain": "A J.E. Mainer number first seen in the film Down Home Music: A Journey Through the Heartland 1963, put out by Arhoolie Records." Like their in-concert storytelling, this printed information is galvanizing to fans, who like to share their own knowledge and experiences with the band.