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The Suburbanite
  • Carolina Chocolate Drops at Kent Folk fest

  • The name Carolina Chocolate Drops is a nod to the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, a popular black trio from the 1930s. “Genuine Negro Jig” is a blackface minstrel song credited to Ohio composer Dan Emmett. And the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ sound is an extension of the 19th-century black string-band tradition.

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  • Everything about the Carolina Chocolate Drops seems designed to confound.
    To begin with, their name feels uncomfortably politically incorrect.
    Ditto the title of their latest album: “Genuine Negro Jig.”
    And then there’s their music — traditional banjo and fiddle-laden tunes that feel not so much black as bluegrass.
    But, as band member Rhiannon Giddens explained in a telephone interview, it all traces back to history.
    The name Carolina Chocolate Drops is a nod to the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, a popular black trio from the 1930s. “Genuine Negro Jig” is a blackface minstrel song credited to Ohio composer Dan Emmett. And the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ sound is an extension of the 19th-century black string-band tradition.
    The band, which hails from Durham, N.C., is gaining attention with its energetic, accomplished and engaging roots music, which is so old it appears new. “Genuine Negro Jig,” released in 2010, won this year’s Grammy Award for best traditional folk album.
    On Wednesday, the Carolina Chocolate Drops will appear in concert at the KSU Auditorium, as part of the Kent State University Folk Festival.
    Here are highlights of my conversation with vocalist and fiddler Giddens, 32.
    Q. What kind of audiences do you get at your shows?
    A. It all depends on the venue. For example, last night, we opened for (rock band) Grace Potter & the Nocturnals and that was a very interesting crowd for us. And we just did a show with (blues legend) Taj Mahal. We’ve done bluegrass festivals, jazz festivals, blues festivals, folk festivals. There seems to be an audience for us wherever we go.
    Q. Do you get a wide age range?
    A. We get different generations. People will come up and say my granddaughter introduced me to your music, or my grandmother introduced me to your music. We’ve had both. We’ll have young people standing up going crazy, and older people sitting down watching intently.
    Q. Considering the music you play, I’m guessing your audiences are predominantly white.
    A. They are. There’s a ready-made community of folk people, and bluegrass fans. In the black community, people left those genres long ago. The number of people of color at our shows is increasing, though. We’ve had some exposure in the black press. We’re letting black people in general know that this music is part of our history.
    Q. When I hear banjo and fiddle, I don’t think of black musicians. How did this become white music?
    A. Several things happened. The banjo has taken a 180-degree turn in our consciousness. In its early forms, it was known exclusively as a black instrument, a slave instrument. White musicians did not play the banjo till the late 1800s, and then people went nuts for it all over the world. There was a huge shift in the black community from rural areas to urban, and with that the idea of leaving rural stuff like string band music and banjo behind, and tastes moving into blurs and jazz. That’s simplifying the whole process, of course. It’s complicated.
    Page 2 of 2 - Q. What are you concerts like?
    A. We’re not one of these big dramatic shows. We’re just four people playing music. We sit sometimes, we stand some. We try to give information, especially because we’re black people playing banjo and fiddle. We always introduce our songs, enough to inform people but not too much to be a lecture. We come out of the folk idea that there’s not a wall between the audience and the performer. We always invite people to sing and dance and participate if the theater allows it. They give us energy.
    Q. Your version of “Hit Em Up Style” (Blu Cantrell’s hit single from 2001) is surprising and terrific. How did you decided to record it?
    A.  It’s a good song, a good hook, it’s got good words, it’s good for beat boxing. It’s one I heard on the radio a lot. It’s fun to sing. The audience really gets into it.
    Q. Was there a playfulness in titling your album “Genuine Negro Jig”?
    A. We thought it was a good title. We’re a black string band and it was a way to just throw it out there and say, “Here it is, let’s get beyond this and let’s get to the music.”