Rhiannon Giddens was recently described as one of the 25 Most Influential Women Musicians of the 21st Century and according to the New York Times “her voice is a perpetually soulful marvel.” She’s an historian, musical social activist, former opera singer, top-notch banjo player, fiddle player, actress, and accomplished song writer. Her recent solo album, Freedom Highway and her collaborative project, Songs of Our Native Daughters, with Allison Russell, Leyla McCalla and Amythyst Kiah bring to centre stage the history of black women in the United States, their suffering and resilience.
Along with Italian pianist and percussionist, Francesco Turrisi, she’s just completed a tour of Ireland. Turrisi, dubbed rightly a “musical alchemist,” is an highly skilled musician who has the deepest knowledge of the history of his music imaginable and is an accomplished raconteur, able to utterly engage his audience between songs.
They played a sold-out Black Box in Belfast, treating the delighted crowd to a feast of eclectic music, charged a times with intense emotion and laced at others with humour.
Here are 7 things we learned from their performance of at the Black Box (actually it could have been 26 things, given the lessons we got during the gig on music history, frame drums, banjos, southern Italian trance dancing and more besides).
1. Rhiannon Giddens is a fabulous singer. Actually, we knew that beforehand, but to hear her live was something else. She’s a trained opera singer, so the control, tone and dynamics are all there. But the timbre, the emotion and the connection she makes with her audience when she sings are all utterly mesmerizing. As for the ability to sing flawlessly in a Puglian dialect…
2. Who knew the history of the frame drum could be so interesting? It dates back to the 7th century BC and there are a huge variety from Africa, Asia and the Middle East, most of which Francesco Turrisi had with him on stage. Well, quite a few anyway. Turrisi’s musical history lessons were never less than fascinating and when he pulled off that tambourine solo, he had us in the palm of his hand. Oh, and did I mention the Iranian Sufi drum which Francesco tuned by means of a bicycle pump?
3. The one string piano is a thing. There it was, right on the stage, the Una Corda, designed by David Klavins, the most unusual piano I’ve ever seen. The hammers hit one string, as opposed to three on a regular piano and it’s only got five, not seven octaves, if you must know. The important thing is that Francesco Turrisi could play that thing. Perhaps the most unexpected turn in the concert was when he sat with his back to us and started to play some 16th century Italian keyboard music, which eventually began to give way to jazzy syncopation. Quite wonderful.
4. Most people think of the banjo as a white person’s country music instrument. Rhiannon Giddens is on a mission to ensure we understand its roots in West Africa and then as an instrument of black slaves. It was eventually popularized in the middle of the nineteenth century throughout the United States and Europe by white performers. Giddens played her nineteenth century replica 5-string minstrel banjo with consummate skill, especially in the contra dance tunes she played in duet with Turrisi on piano accordion. The accuracy of the fast in-unison passages in these were jaw-dropping.
5. Ms Giddens’s song-writing is steeped in the infamous history of African Americans, where she distils the whole horror to an individual’s or family’s experience. The performance of the Purchaser’s Option (from her album Freedom Highway), which tells the story of a young black slave and her baby is horrifyingly effective, and but we heard the strength and resilience of the woman despite the horror as Rhiannon Giddens sang over and over,
You can take my body
You can take my bones
You can take my blood
But not my soul.
6. Despite the intensity of her historical quest and her dismay at the current state of affairs in the United States and elsewhere, Rhiannon Giddens remains incredibly positive. “We need to focus on how beautiful we can be,” on our potential for good, she told us.
7. Towards the end of a remarkable evening of the most eclectic musical elements you could imagine, Rhiannon Giddens sang an old spiritual “I’m Going to Tell God All of my Troubles When I Get Home,” with a simple piano accompaniment. You could have heard a pin drop in the packed Black Box. “When you think the world’s gone crazy, He will see you through…” It was exquisite. And an appropriate hymn to take back into life.