Rhiannon Giddens: Defiant in the Face of “Othering”

Music Features Rhiannon Giddens
Rhiannon Giddens: Defiant in the Face of “Othering”

“It’s my axe,” Rhiannon Giddens says of her banjo. Though the long-necked instrument is certainly her weapon of choice in the good fight, perhaps it’s not so much a tool used in battle as it is a spade in the ongoing excavation that is her career. First as an opera singer and the frontwoman of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, later as a soloist and supergroup affiliate and now in her new collaborative project with Italian multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi, Giddens has spent the last decade or so digging up forgotten slabs of history.

“That’s my job,” Giddens says. “That’s what I was given to do. The reason I’m an artist, the reason I write songs, is to do what I’m doing. So I don’t really feel like I have a choice in that. Because the thing is, the more you excavate what went on in the past, the more you can understand what’s going on now.”

“Know thy history. Let it horrify you; let it inspire you,” Giddens wrote ahead of her 2017 solo LP, Freedom Highway, which contained songs based on slave narratives and stories from the Civil Rights movement. Her next project, a 2019 record with supergroup Our Native Daughters, which linked Giddens’ banjo with those of Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russel, saw a similar mission statement, taking a confrontational look at American history told from an undeniably black, feminist perspective. She also found time to score a ballet with the poet Caroline Randall Williams, Lucy Negro, Redux, which uses Shakespeare’s Dark Lady sonnets as a way to examine how we view black female bodies. This time, on her newest endeavor, the album there is no Other (out now on Nonesuch), Giddens, along with Turrisi, tracks the movement of people—and their music—across cultures and centuries, particularly in regards to their respective areas of expertise: Giddens knows inside and out the African American influence on roots, acoustic and old time music; for Turrisi, it’s a deep knowledge of Arabic music and its imprint on Europe and beyond. The album is grounds for a smaller world, a beautiful narrative convincing us of our similarities, not our differences. If Giddens’ 2017 note works as a sort of preamble for consuming her art, there is no Other is of the “inspire” wing.

While inspirational, there is no Other is also concerned with illumination. The stories in these songs can act as hymns, folktales or dispatches from some lost time or place, but it’s really in the instrumentation where the album’s deepest messages—a condemnation of “othering,” the social practice of ostracizing those considered outsiders, and a campaign for the similitude of human experiences—come to light. If instruments from different parts of the world can work together so seamlessly, why can’t people?

The album’s two-and-a-half minute title track is a wordless ditty, but still one of the most action-packed on the whole record—Giddens’ determined plucking on the minstrel banjo, on which she writes most of her songs (including a few themes for an in-the-works opera), dances with Turrisi’s restless pounding on an Irish frame drum called the bodhrán, an instrument with ancient roots on which he’s considered a virtuoso. The banjo and the frame drum hail from completely different parts of the world, but on this tune, which Giddens and Turrisi wrote as a pair, they sound kindred.

“It’s not like I wrote [“there is no Other”] on the banjo and then he put the frame drum with it,” Giddens says. “It came into being together. I would be playing going, ‘Wait a minute, did I make that sound?’ And that’s beautiful to me. They sound like they were meant to be together from the beginning, these two instruments. You think they’re thousands of miles apart, but they’re not at all, and then you go back far enough and they were together.”

Like their instruments, Giddens and Turrisi come from two different worlds, but they had an immediate connection. After meeting a few years ago, Turrisi, a pianist and jazz expert in addition to master frame drummer, was taken with Giddens’ dedication to the sounds of the African diaspora and had a hunch their music would mesh. They finally connected for a few demos in fall 2017, which Giddens then sent to producer Joe Henry. He was hooked, and an official collaboration between Giddens and Turrisi was underway. They bonded over their shared love of musical history and respective research focuses, but their own sounds—different as they may be—formed the strongest ties.

“We made sonic connections before we talked about the history, but the connections were all musical and aural before we even started comparing notes on where this stuff comes from,” Giddens says, noting the different time periods and places their music references. “The way my music speaks to his music is the proof regardless of everything else, the musics speak to each other, and this is not a mashup. Because we’re so well versed in what we do, that’s the starting point. But then the music itself sort of takes over.”

Giddens cites album track “Little Margaret” as an example of this musical merger that seems to defy sense. Turrisi plays an Iranian trance folk drum while Giddens sustains the banjo, turning this Appalachian ballad on its head. A lot of that connecting energy on the album sparked in the studio, where Henry, along with engineer Ryan Freeland, set the stage for improvisational magic. Recorded in just five days, there is no Other is an album with many single takes and few edits.

“It was really important that we felt that we were just free to do whatever we wanted and that it was going to be caught,” Giddens says. “It was really a tale of two partnerships: Joe and Ryan, setting the stage up for us and then not being in the way, but being incredibly supportive so that we knew we weren’t going to fall. And that kind of trust is not a common thing in the recording studio, and it’s something I recognize as an active player in the creation of this record.”

As much as technique and serendipitous moments in the studio played into this album’s formation, so too did Giddens’ and Turrisi’s shared dedication to storytelling and love for history. Giddens, a rabid history buff who’s devoted her career to unearthing lost African American narratives and stories of the marginalized, says Turrisi has “forgotten more than I’ve ever known.” They make for a highly informed pair.

“I think our cultural connections are really strong, and we have that interesting mix of a distance, but then also familial and familiar connections to the music,” Giddens says. “And so it just makes us want to know more. I don’t watch Game of Thrones. I don’t watch TV. I don’t watch Hulu. I just read and think about this stuff. It’s like an obsession and I can’t help it, because the more I read, the more fascinated I get and the more that I want to know.”

there is no Other follows an uplifting path. On album opener “Ten Thousand Voices,” Giddens sounds mournful, but the song’s repetitive phrasing is actually quite hopeful, a rousing chant reminding us how we’re unified. “Trees on the Mountain” is a prayer for warmth and intimacy, one Giddens sings over Turrisi’s lone, sulking piano and slithering cello by Kate Ellis, who also appears on three other tracks.

But as she has often done throughout her career, Giddens shines brightly when she interprets standards. On there is no Other, she chose two tracks previously sung by one of her musical guiding lights, Nina Simone: “Black Swan” and the aching lullaby “Brown Baby,” which has her promising “Sweetie you gonna live in a better world.” Weirdly enough, Simone and Giddens share a birthday (44 years apart on Feb. 21), and they were both born in North Carolina. Giddens named her 2015 album Tomorrow Is My Turn for a track from Simone’s backlog, and again on Other she takes cues from Simone’s interpretive abilities.

“Her original songs are wonderful, but where she speaks to me is in the way that she was an interpreter and the way that she used her classical training to infuse and to shape what she did as a singer and what she did as a piano player and as an artist,” Giddens says.

Giddens and Turrisi end the album the same way they’ve been closing out their live sets recently, with the peaceful call to the heavens, “He Will See You Through.” Another prayer, this one is meant to send the listener out on a note of comfort. Giddens recognizes that not everyone will hear the album in its entirety, but for those that do, it’s a vital farewell.

“There’s a lot of stuff going on these days,” she says. “You just kind of have to find your strength and what you find it in. And for me it’s in that positivity ’cause I deal with a lot of negativity in the history that I look at. So the way that I survived is kind of focusing on that thing bigger than yourself, whatever it is, whatever you want to call it.”

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