Banjo player, fiddler, and singer Rhiannon Giddens, accompanied by Italian multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi, entertained, educated, and amazed a spell-bound crowd in the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater recently.
Drawing on their conservatory educations, the duo brought together the worlds of folk and classical music. Immersed in cross-Atlantic traditions, Rhiannon and Francesco shared their boundless enthusiasm for the history of folk music. With a bass player rounding out their ensemble, they played luscious, full-bodied compositions on Sept. 26.
Rhiannon composed a three-song cycle for the Newgrass Commission last year, including the pieces “10,000 Voices” and “Inside Me Is Heaven.” On the former, Francesco played banjo and Rhiannon sang. On the latter, Rhiannon played the fiddle and Francesco played the accordion. The songs were inspired by her reading of Cuba and Its Music, the first three chapters of which dealt with the slave trade. Among the slaves taken and sold were female musicians. It was said that these musicians knew 10,000 verses.
The history of slavery and the slave trade also led Rhiannon to write “At The Purchaser’s Option.” While she was studying historical documents, she came across one for a woman with a nine-month old baby available “at the purchaser’s option.” As a mother of two, Rhiannon felt deeply moved by the slave’s plight of having no control over any part of her life, not even her children.
“Following the North Star,” Rhiannon told the audience, was written for the Nashville ballet. She picked up her banjo and remarked that “what banjos do they when feel neglected is they go out of tune.” As she tuned her banjo to Francesco’s drum, she welcomed guest Rowen Corbett to the stage to play the rhythm bones.
In addition to her original compositions, Rhiannon covered a variety of classic American tunes, ranging across folk and popular styles. She introduced “Gonna Write Me Letter,” by Ola Belle Reed, as a song from her native state of North Carolina. Later, Francesco played the accordion while Rhiannon played the banjo and sang the traditional “Poor Wayfaring Stranger.” After intermission, Rhiannon began by singing Oscar Brown Jr.’s “Brown Baby” in the style of Nina Simone, as well as Ethel Waters’s interpretation of “Underneath the Harlem Moon.”
Stream There Is No Other by Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi on Spotify:
Rhiannon and Francesco also played music from across the Atlantic. From Ireland, where they currently reside, they drew the folk tune “Molly Brannigan.” Drawing on Rhiannon’s operatic training, they covered “Pizzica di San Vito,” a piece of traditional music associated with trance healing, from from Francesco’s native Italy. Francesco explained that, as late as the 1960s, the practice still existed in Pulia, the poorest part of Italy.
Further drawing on her training as an opera soprano at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Rhiannon sang “The Trees and the Hills,” an aria from the opera Susannah, composed by Carlisle Floyd. Floyd wrote the aria to resemble Appalachian folk balads.
Rhiannon played a replica of the first commercial banjo model from 1858. The banjo, she explained, evolved among black slaves and was only adopted by whites in the 1820s and 1830s. This led to a discussion of minstrelsy, which for 60 years was the most popular form of entertainment in America; it was also the first American form of entertainment exported to the rest of the world. While minstrelsy may not be in open evidence, Rhiannon argued that it has merely gone underground, quipping that there’s a reason Mickey Mouse wears white gloves.
Innovatively combining traditions, Rhiannon and Francesco mixed a banjo folk tune with a composition by Brazilian composer Hermeto Pascoal. The banjo tune came from the first book that taught how to play banjo, Briggs’ Banjo Instructor, published in 1855. Rhiannon invited the audience to make noise before they started playing.
In the second half of the show, they played another song from the Briggs book, with Francesco accompanying Rhiannon on the tamborello, an Italian drum. The tamborello is held in a distinctive way, at the bottom of the drum, as opposed to at the top of the drum, as with a gospel tambourine. Looking at old photos of black minstrels, Francesco discovered that they held their hand drums in the same position as players from the Mediterrenean. He suggested that the link lay in the British tradition of tambourine mimicked from the Ottoman jannisaries.
Following the publication of a piece in the New Yorker, “Rhiannon Giddens and What Folk Music Means,” she was invited to perform on the Today Show. She found this surprising, as the New Yorker article began with several pages about a now-obscure black banjo player from the post-Civil War era. For the piece played on the Today Show, Rhiannon played banjo and Francesco played the daf, an Iranian drum.
Immediately before that number, Francesco accompanied Rhiannon on a fiddle piece with the accordion, and they were joined by Rowan, who played a hand drum. After the Today Show number, Francesco stunned the crowd with a virtuosic tambourine solo, coaxing sounds from his instrument that I did not know were possible.
Before going to encore, Rhiannon finished her second set with the gospel hymn “He Will See You Through.” A standing ovation brought her back to the stage to perform the Appalachian ballad “Pretty Sarah.” To send the audience home, she growled and shook her way through Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Up Above My Head.”
Rhiannon danced her way offstage. During the concert she said, “I love being weird.” And we all love Rhiannon for being her particular flavor of weird. She has a clear, infectious passion for music. Let’s hope that Rhiannon Giddens never stops being “weird.”