The banjo was born black. It evolved from precursors in Africa and the West Indies before it became a cornerstone of bluegrass and Southern music at large. This fact is quoted frequently by the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a string band that rose from Durham roots to become one of today's most visible old-time performers. Their music, lively and earnest, is sparked by a desire to honor the instrument's lineage.
In eight years, they've spread their message far and wide. They're regulars at festivals and large rock clubs, and they snagged a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album thanks to 2010's Genuine Negro Jig. But the ignorant remain. Hubby Jenkins, who joined the Drops in 2011, remembers a solo show played the night before a group gig in Virginia. Afterward, a man came up to him arguing that the banjo couldn't be a black instrument because "his granddaddy had played it."
"That was a five-minute discussion," he recalls. "I was like, 'Yeah, your granddaddy played the banjo, but it's definitely a black instrument.' He's like, 'No, it's definitely not.' That's a very rare thing. For the most part, people are open to it. That's kind of our thing, trying to get that back into the public consciousness."
After two final shows Saturday and Sunday at Charlotte's Neighborhood Theatre, founding member Dom Flemons will bid adieu to the Drops to focus on his solo career. The band will endure, guided by Rhiannon Giddens, soon to be the only player remaining from the original trio. They've already endured one major shift, adding three new members when Justin Robinson left in 2011. With cellist Leyla McCalla exiting earlier this year to support her forthcoming LP, Giddens spent much of 2013 determining whether the outfit would continue.
"Dom and I could have easily shook hands and said, 'You do your thing. I'll do my thing. Maybe we'll get back together and have a reunion in a few years,'" she explains. "But both of us felt very strongly that the band as an entity, as an idea is extremely important. I talked to Taj Mahal, and he was like, 'This is bigger than either one of you. It's bigger than anybody who's ever been in the band. The notion is important and needs to be out there.' It was really good to hear that from him because he really believes in this music, and there wasn't enough folks of color doing this stuff when he was our age. Why shouldn't we keep it going?"
Support from a blues legend was empowering, but Giddens wanted to make sure that the group's energy and integrity wouldn't be compromised. The chemistry among the founding trio was incredible. Robinson's razoring fiddle was a perfect foil for Flemons' loose touch with bones, banjo and various other instruments.
Once Robinson departed, Flemons' self-taught execution collided more colorfully with Giddens' classically trained polish. On last year's Leaving Eden, she belts her songs with power and charm, drawing inspiration, she says, from minstrel shows of old, sounding theatrical in a way that would shine just as brightly under a Broadway spotlight. The band's rambling acoustics keep her soaring pipes from floating too far.
Giddens emphasizes that each new lineup has helped the Drops keep their traditional sound fresh. With cellist Malcolm Parson and multi-instrumentalist Rowan Corbett set to enter the fold next year, she's excited to expand the musical dialogue that she's helped create. They'll tour starting in February and write material for a new album.
"Rowan plays bodhrán, so we can explore a little bit more the Irish-black connection that happened in the early part of the 1800s," she offers. "When [former member Adam Matta] came in, we explored things with beat box. With Hubby, we were able to explore jazz and swing-y type things because he was so good at that. When Leyla came in, we were able to do Haitian things. Now, with these guys we'll be able to do this portion of things. That's really a strength. They bring their own set of skills and their own set of instruments."