Thursday 11 February 2010

Carolina Chocolate Drops

The Met, Bury, Saturday, 6 Feb

All-black, old-time string-band Carolina Chocolate Drops gave the capacity crowd at The Met license to stomp, and the capacity crowd seized the opportunity. They hollered and cheered and clapped and stamped their feet in gleeful appreciation. And although the buzz around the Carolina Chocolate Drops – individually, Justin Robinson, Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemons –has been gaining in momentum since their debut album, Heritage, came out two years ago, the group seemed genuinely moved, and gave of their best.

The bulk of the material came from the new album, Genuine Negro Jig, which extends the band's repertoire in two directions. From a secure base in old-time music, the trio now stretch to ancient English ballads (the tale of a damsel in peril in Reynardine) to hip-hop tunes (a scorned woman´s revenge in Hit Ém Up Style). Further evidence that the Chocolate Drops are no old-time purists came on the second tune, Trouble In Your Mind, when the soaring fiddle breaks were accompanied by a guttural noise from Dom: throat singing from Tuva is still a rarity in the old-time mountains. Sometimes, however, no superadded surrealism could top the strangeness of the original tunes, as when Rhiannon sang an immensely moving blues song about the death of her beloved mother, complete with a passage of yodelling.

Instrumental prowess was evenly distributed, as were the instruments themselves, as Justin and Rhiannon swapped fiddles, and the jug was passed between Dom and Justin. All three had a go on banjo at various times, and there were sporadic outings for kazoo, harp and bones.

The songs were timeless and ageless. And by reminding that interaction between black and white musicians has always been a stimulus of US folk music, Carolina Chocolate Drops are providing a valuable service. But it occurs that if the trio had been active when most of their material was fresh minted, the group members would have been more likely to have been hung from the nearest tree rather than given a standing ovation.

The paradox was brought home when the trio essayed the title track of the album, Genuine Negro Jig. The tune, with its marked Arab strain and flamenco-friendly rhythm, was in fact, first documented in the mid-1880s by Dan Emmett (composer of Dixie), and taken from the playing of a musical family, the Snowdens, Emmett's black neighbours in northern Ohio. The Carolina Chocolate Drops restore the true authorship of the tune with their alternative title, Snowden´s Jig.

Justin sang an English murder ballad that far exceeded in gore any gangster rap. Rhiannon received cheers when she danced the Charleston during Salty Dog. The high spirits belied a savage irony – the Charleston dance was an early instance of white appropriation from black culture. The port of Charleston in South Carolina was the main point of disembarkation for slave ships from Africa.

No mention was made of this. Naturally. Carolina Chocolate Drops are in the business of entertainment. But the historical resonances of such emphatic good-time music go to show how serious the business of entertainment can be. When Dom dances and capers like a performer from an antebellum minstrel show - it used to be known, with the casual racism of the period, as a 'coon dance' - it´s at once a pointed comment on the history of race relations in the US and a gleeful re-appropriation. Dom is offering his audiences a vision his audiences have spent generations trying to forget. When the trio come back, after a tumultuous clamour for an encore, and sing, a cappella, the beautiful spiritual, Travelin´Shoes, it's almost like a gesture of reconciliation. One leaves a Carolina Chocolate Drops concert with a sense of broadening and enrichment. The transcendent truth is that this music of black origin/white adoption (or vice versa, whatever) is for all people.

Mike Butler

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