No matter how much I appreciate the balls it takes to do something like Kanye West’s remix of “Power,” sometimes it’s a relief to know that today’s black musicians are not just about big spectacle and programmed beats. As a black string band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops make music that’s arguably just as culturally significant—but with fiddles, bones, banjos, kazoos and some downhome blues edge.
Sound like shuckin’ and jivin’ music to you? Guess again. These are virtuosos you oughta know.
Their latest album, “Genuine Negro Jig,” dropped this spring and the trio (from left: Don Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens, Justin Robinson) has been touring since. (Bowery Ballroom on Oct. 15 in NYC.) The disc includes covers of rock tunes (Tom Waits’ “Trampled Rose”) and popular R&B (Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style”) to a CCD original (“Kissin’ and Cussin'”) and some vintage blues.
I chatted with them via phone recently as they traveled through Norway and they shared the following tidbits.
Justin, 27, on the album title and group name:
“People can see what they like, actually. We had been playing for a while, and we didn’t actually know the connotation of what a ‘chocolate drop’ meant…that it was seen in some circles as a derogatory term. We didn’t grow up knowing that ourselves. ‘Genuine Negro Jig’ is a title of a tune on the album. We knew that it was provocative, but we did not have a particular comment that we were making, by naming the album that.”
Rhiannon, 33, on the history of banjo:
“There are a lot of different instruments in West Africa that could be considered banjo ancestors—from the akonting in Gambia, to the n’goni in Mali to the buchundu in Senegal. It was only played by African-Americans for the first hundred years of their existence in this country. Up until the 1850s that’s what was known as a slave instrument… how that came from African ancestors to the banjo, that’s kind of hard to be real specific about but we know that it happened.”
Don, 27, on 19-century minstrel history (in a nutshell):
“You have this fiddle tradition that grows and the banjo meets with that. And then after a certain point, just like any other music that African-Americans produce, white people started saying that wow, this is pretty amazing stuff, we ought to start doing this. And the minstrel show was the first version of that, where it combines with theatrics and clown makeup, so that the clown turns into the black clown, that becomes something in itself and that explodes and becomes an international phenomenon.”
Rhiannon on reclaiming the music typically associated with minstrelsy:
“It’s not anything we set out to do. It wasn’t like we set out and pick up instruments saying, ‘I’m going to reclaim this.’ It was just that we were interested, and then we got into the history, it was kind of like this is great, this is really cool. That’s the thing, so much of this comes from a painful history. In an effort to leave that behind, we’ve also left behind a lot of great music. It’s been great to feel like we are uncovering it. It doesn’t deserve to be buried.”