The Carolina Chocolate Drops are one of the few black, old-time string bands that still exist today. Composed of lead vocalist, violinist, and banjoist, Rhiannon Giddens, multi-instrumentalists, Hubby Jenkins and Rowan Corbett, and cellist, Malcolm Parson, the Durham, North Carolina based quartet are a coming of age musical-medium that bridge African-American influenced folk music to modern musical themes with a 21st century interpretation.
The banjo, an instrument that has its origins in West Africa, is quintessential in the makings of music in America. As early as the 17th century slaves were taught to play violins for their master’s entertainment. Slaves combined European harmonies they learned on the violin with the rhythmic and syncopated cadences from their native Africa that they played on the banjo. This cultivated into a sound that was uniquely African-American and was called “Negro Jigs.”
Before the Chocolate Drops became a group, they were inquisitive musicians that shared a common interest in learning more about string music, in particular, the African-American influence on string music of the 1920s and 30s in the Piedmont regions of North and South Carolina. When white musicians started to incorporate banjos in their sets, string music became associated with being “hillbilly“, mainly because black musicians started embracing blues music and as a result black string band traditions faded, while “hillbilly” became the precursor to country and bluegrass music. Wanting to preserve and share the black string band tradition, the Chocolate Drops sought the expertise of Joe Thompson, a legendary fiddler from North Carolina who comes from a line of black string band musicians. Thompson exposed them to old-time fiddling during jam sessions at his home. The Carolina Chocolate Drops initially formed as a tribute band for Thompson before his passing in 2012 at the age of 93, but shortly thereafter, discovered success beyond him.
Genuine Negro Jig was Carolina Chocolate Drops fourth studio album and their first album that was highly successful. Released by Nonesuch Records, Genuine Negro Jig, was both critically acclaimed and popular, topping Billboard’s Folk and Bluegrass categories and winning the group a Grammy for “Best Traditional Folk Album” of 2010.
Original band members Dom Flemons, an extraordinarily gifted bones and harmonica player, and fiddler, Justin Robinson, who both amicably left the group to pursue their individual endeavors, helped to create the Chocolate Drops’ well-nigh legacy. Flemons and Robinson were the force behind previous albums, Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind, Heritage, Carolina Chocolate Drops & Joe Thompson, Genuine Negro Jig, and Flemons behind Leaving Eden. In the group’s short tenure they have re-interpreted American roots music with an unprocessed purity. Mixing elements of jug-band music, blues, early jazz, country, gospel, and hip-hop, their songs have a fresh perspective on a nostalgic sound.
Rhiannon Giddens is the only original member left. She was trained at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music where she studied opera. Her voice is controlled, with each note having intention behind it, unlike some newer artists who bellow resounding vibratos because that’s what they think they’re supposed to do. Think of the vocal strength of Mama Cass and the angelic softness of Minnie Riperton and you have the likeness of Rhiannon Giddens.
You can really get a taste of the volume of Giddens’ voice in “Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man?” a remake of The Osborne Brothers’ 1970 single, “Ruby.” The song appears on Leaving Eden, the Chocolate Drops’ fifth and latest studio album, released in 2012. Leaving Eden features their biggest hit to date, “Country Girl.” An ode to all things indigenously southern, “Country Girl” has a chorus that will stick with you, finding its balance between a catchy hook and heartfelt music. The album also features Haitian-American cellist, Leyla McCalla, whose distinctive style explores the sound of Louisiana Creole fiddlers, Canray Fontenot and BeBe Carriere, but on a cello.
A knee-slapping, foot-stomping, shot of corn liquor to the chest, the irony is that the Chocolate Drops’ music is also scholarly, minus the pretense. A concoction of historical context, academic scholarship, and genuineness, make them an integral part of American roots music. Their sixth album is set for release sometime in 2015, but with members branching out into solo careers, including Giddens, the Chocolate Drops may be a transitional group. Whatever they are as a group one thing remains that when the Carolina Chocolate Drops play, spirits move and ancestors rejoice.
© Copyright Eddie Savoy Bailey III, 2014
Written by: Eddie Bailey of The Savoy Media Group