Carolina Chocolate Drops are fresh faces in old-timey traditions
With old-timey string bands overflowing out of the porchfront woodworks and into the mainstream, the Carolina Chocolate Drops are a reminder that such twangy revelry is by no means limited to white players. Just like Bela Fleck’s recent documentary exploring the banjo’s African origins, Throw Down Your Heart, the trio plucks out—via plenty of virtuosic plucking on its 2010 release, Genuine Negro Jig—preconceived ideas. The banjo, after all, came to America aboard a slave ship from Africa, and just as much as there is a reminder of that history in the band’s music, there is also, perhaps more importantly, an assertion that modern black music isn’t limited to that which is most often seen and celebrated on radio and television. After meeting at North Carolina’s Black Banjo Gathering in 2005, Dom Flemons (guitar, banjo, jug), Rhiannon Giddens (fiddle, banjo, vocals) and Justin Robinson (fiddle and vocals) would form a student-teacher relationship with revered Africa-American fiddler Joe Thompson. Ultimately, they’d transform Thompson’s classics into a set of traditionals and originals infused with old-timey precision embellished with progressive moves; beatboxing and Giddens’ opera-trained pipes stand out amongst the storm of strings. With Giddens and Robinson both classically-trained musicians, Flemons—a self-taught guitarist and banjoist with a background in songwriting and slam poetry—entered the fold with old-time country blues and jazz thumping in his head. Before the Carolina Chocolate Drops rain down some ramblin’ hillbilly traditions on the Kuumbwa Jazz stage on Friday, June 25, Flemons talks about how traveling back in time is taking the band far in breaking boundaries.
GOOD TIMES: As young black musicians
practicing old-timey music you challenge stereotypes.
DOM FLEMONS: The reason that there’s a black and white string music is that both people are always listening to it. It then just becomes a matter of commercial or reality—in a commercial stance black people don’t listen to country music, but in the reality of course there are black people who listen to country music. In rural North Carolina the black people are doing the same thing the white people are doing.
What were you exploring when you first started playing in the Chocolate Drops?
I would take these conceptual ideas of Mike Seeger, the very prominent folklorist who would take different traditional music and fit them together musically even though historically they didn’t fit together or you wouldn’t find them historically side by side. And instead of being so docile—a lot of modern old-timey music is very subdued—I let it be wild. I strummed hard, emphasizing the beat that was there with the fiddle and banjo while trying not to disrupt that rhythm either. I started playing a very jagged style.
Where do you continue to find inspiration?
Being a collector by nature, music is such an all encompassing thing to have in your life because you can approach it in so many different ways. I read the liner notes and biographies when listening to artists to see who they were influenced by, and then I try to listen to them. Like James Brown, he was influenced by Little Willie John, the soul singer whose version of “Fever” is the black version. I’m kind of a freak in that way where I always look to see who people’s influences are. I try to catch a little of their mojo by going back to the people they listened to and maybe pick up something from them.
It’s ironic that it’s by going back in time that you’re changing modern black music.
In the black community the banjo means a lot of things. You go one or two generations back and you’ll find people who had a lot of flack for playing the banjo because some people said it was a minstrel instrument, some black people just saw it as white people’s music. But at the same time for many generations black culture has been a united front. With each younger generation black culture is changing with more opportunities and education, you’re starting to find people are doing broad things rather than being a single entity within America. Even in my time, 10 years ago black music isn’t what it is today. You see a lot more black kids that are skaters, into rock, into punk—stuff that’s not particularly associated with their culture but it’s still theirs.
Carolina Chocolate Drops perform at 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 25, at Kuumbwa Jazz, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $20/adv., $23/door. 427-2227.