Photo by Ebru Yildiz
For the American-in-Ireland Rhiannon Giddens, there is no us and them. There is no single story of music or culture or history. There is no “other”. Everything is connected.
No, it’s not that ‘60s idealism-in-song (wrapped around some highly questionable racial tropes) of a great big melting pot “big enough to take the world and all it’s got”. This is a simultaneously older and newer concept where Giddens argues that in matters cultural, especially music, “there is no culture that exists in a vacuum, there is no way that people live in isolation.”
The rhythms of the Balkans appearing in the songs of Ireland, the percussion tools of the Persian Gulf and west Africa washing up in the bars and halls of North America, the Caribbean and southern Italy sharing melodies and string instruments. The songlines are all there if we’re prepared to see.
“It’s so intriguing to follow all of these threads and realise how interwoven they are with history and politics and human nature. We tend to separate music out of where it comes from, but you can’t do that at all,” says Giddens, Grammy winner and recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, aka the genius grant, who had her breakthrough with the African-American string band, Carolina Chocolate Drops, the trio whose “shocking” revelation to the world was that bluegrass, the so-called music of the white folks of the eastern mountains and valleys, had a black history.
“The more that you contextualise it correctly, the more you realise that it’s part of the whole, and there is so much to be gained from that.”
The part of the whole she’s currently engaged with, from her homes in Limerick and North Carolina, is a partnership with Sicilian multi-instrumentalist, composer and percussion specialist Francisco Turrisi, the pair meeting after each had moved to Ireland to be with new partners.
“Our very first connection was tambourine and minstrel banjo. We thought that sounds really good and then we talked to the academics and realised there’s a reason for that,” she says. “And that’s happened over and over, that we find this musical connection that comes naturally. And there’s a reason.”
In their songs, on stage during their coming Australian tour and on the album, There Is No Other, you might find an Appalachian song played on an Arabic frame drum and banjo, gospel blended with British folk, cello and viola next to bendir (a type of drum) and tombak (Persian percussion). You can’t see the lines dividing, only the elements connecting.
“And this is where music can really show this in a way that’s not threatening as other ways. Which is why my connection with Francesco was so important because he’s bringing that whole history, connecting that with what I’ve been doing in the States,” says Giddens.
“Now we’ve got the narrative that goes from the Middle East all the way through to United States. You can see the connection with the bodhran being connected to the Caribbean and southern Italy. When we find these connections we get really excited. We are not taking the bodhran away from Ireland; we are putting it into a larger global context.”
Giddens is a classically trained singer, musicologist, songwriter, folk singer, historian, actor and author, and if there is one thing which links the many strands of this American by birth, internationalist by nature, it would be the stories untold – “I feel definitely that it’s one of my reasons for living.” - and it all began with the banjo, her first instrument and an unlikely battleground for a long culture war.
“When I look at why the banjo for example went from being a majority black instrument to an instrument that ‘everybody knows’ was invented in the white mountains of Appalachia - the white mountains of Appalachian also being a myth; they never existed,” Giddens says. “Yes there was a demographic shift, and yes changing tastes, but none of it explains how fast it happened and how absolutely it happened, unless you start getting into the white supremacy that goes along with it. And the lens that people look at this music through.”
That lens was formed by a broader cultural whitewashing, from local statues and literature to the “gentrification” of string bands and the way one of the most powerful industrialists of the 20th century, Henry Ford, alarmed by the growing popularity of jazz and other “Negro” music began pushing folk music and entertainments such as square dances, as more socially appropriate, that is, white activities.
The irony was of course that the music had been played by, and often as not created by, African-Americans. But the mythical narrative of white America was well under way.
“The music is just one example of how it was done, but one of the reasons why it’s important to talk about it through music is that it’s so obvious.”
A woman whose background includes black and white sides of America, as well as Native American, Giddens, doesn’t want the symbolism of a unified culture to obscure some truths which are still self-evident. Beyond asking how the obscuring of non-white America happened, she wants us to ask why.
“The older I get the more I realise there are two parts to it: we don’t know this; then, why don’t we know this? The second part is usually pretty important. None of this disappears just because; it’s always made to disappear for specific reasons. And you realise that there is a long, long history of making these things disappear, and all for very similar reasons.”
And that reason? “It’s usually in somebody’s best interest. That often has to do with power. It often has to do with money. And it’s through the tools of racism.”
“You realise that it’s part of this wide movement of solidification of what whiteness was. The idea of whiteness. And that’s kind of where I’m headed: we can’t talk about colour without talking about whiteness. We can’t talk about the creation of blackness, without talking about the creation of whiteness.”
Giddens, who describes her proselytising on correcting this historical wrong as “one of my reasons for living”, says while we have preferred not to talk about it, you can sees its after-effects everywhere, from the creation of genres and sub-genres, the separations of folk festivals, and the basis of the early recording industry.
All to define what is white and what is not.
“The effects of that is still strong in our music industry, and it leads into this idea that we are fundamentally different, that there are these distinct cultures that didn’t affect each other. It’s just BS. But it’s easy to keep people divided if that’s the narrative, which is why it’s very critical to talk about that now with what is happening there, and abroad as well.”
Broadening that to the silencing and later appropriation of a minority culture’s traditions, such as the theoreticially white-on-white English suppression of the Gaelic language and other cultural expressions in Scotland, Wales and Ireland, turns out to be a spring-loaded opportunity for Giddens.
“This is part of the issue: terminology. When you’re talking about the English Empire suppressing language and culture in Scotland and Ireland, they were not considered white. Whiteness was still in nascent kind of form and the language that the English colonialists used for native Irish speakers in Ireland and the Gaelic speakers in Scotland was very much the same language they used towards natives of the United States and blacks, and anyone of colour,” Giddens says with even more passion. “They were very much not considered what we now think of as white. When they first came to United States, Irish Gaelic speakers, Italians, especially from Sicily, none of them were considered white in so many of the ways that count.
“That terminology is part of what I was talking about: that [definition of white] has solidified over the years but it has been a concerted effort, and a lot of the ideas of taking the surface tokens of being Scottish or Irish have been pulled into white nationalist stuff here in the US. And inviting those groups in within the United States, and how we look at their music buys into that. But the colonialist practiced that before they came to the US and obviously Australia and New Zealand. When you dehumanise somebody, when you ‘other’ them, you say that they are savages, that’s not culture, that’s not civilisation, these are barbarians.”
The eventual appropriation of the “appropriate” and the “safe”, declaring things to be an acceptable part of the dominant culture, is part of that process of denial and denigration. Deracinating the ‘other’ allows the dominant elements to forgive and even congratulate themselves while ignoring something as obvious as the entwined nature of folk musics across Europe and United States and Africa and the Middle East, including the very strands of Islamic culture.
“And this is where music can really show this in a way that’s not threatening as other ways. You can hear something first and then you talk about it and you go, oh …
Which again emphasises why her musical relationship with Turrisi carries such weight, their instruments showing how people and cultures moved, absorbed and reformed. And how those strands connect.
All of that of course making it not just serendipitous but almost ordained that she and the Italian would find each other in a country far from their own homes, both of them now split from the Irish partners who brought them there.
“Let me tell you, we’ve had many conversations about this. You know we each have a daughter called Aoifa, within two years of each other. Their birthdays are in the same month even. There were so many of these moments when we realised how much we had in common. Even meeting him right before I was about to start writing this ballet which was about the black woman who may have inspired Shakespeare to write the Dark Lady sonnets.
“These poems that have been written about her, her name was Lucy, there is American plantation imagery in these poems and Renaissance England imagery and I’m like, holy cow I found probably the one person in the entire world who I could write this ballet with.”
They’re now a couple, with plans.
“It’s been an incredible journey of discovery and we just keep going knowing one lifetime is probably not going to be enough.”
Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi play:
March 7, WOMADelaide March 8-9,Port Fairy Folk Festival March 11 | MONA Nolan Gallery, Hobart March 14 | Melbourne Recital Centre March 15 | Blue Mountains Music Festival March 17 | Metro | Sydney
A version of this story was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald.