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Got the Drop on you

Carolina Chocolate Drops keep history alive

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To say the Carolina Chocolate Drops take an old-school approach would be an understatement. The Durham-based trio -- Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson -- plays traditional string band music found in rural black communities in the South. Its take on traditional songs is garnering attention and praise from around the world.

"Right now, it's our own take on traditional music," Flemons says by phone while on tour in England. "I've written some songs and Rhiannon has written some, but it's really not the purpose in our approach. There's plenty of material. If we come up with something, we'll bring it out, but it's not really a dying need for it. Also, the group's not suffering from us not writing tunes so far."

The band will showcase that approach at a concert for the Charlotte Folk Society on April 5. They'll also be sharing it with young students during free workshops at Northwest School of the Arts that afternoon.

"We had an article done that mentioned workshops and then people started asking us about it," Flemons says. "It's been a real good thing on several different levels. It's been good to teach people things because then you learn more about what you're teaching. People are interested, so why not give it to 'em if you've got it?"

The main goal with the workshops, as well as their concerts, is exposing more people to their style of music. Flemons says that most people he meets really like string music, but they just don't know about it.

"They really don't know about the black side of string music because there's no context for it," he says. "No one is showing it to be a reality. We're not saying to pick up banjos, but if they want to, please join us."

The band started three years ago when they met at the Black Banjo Gathering at Appalachian State University. At that time, the band members were doing other things -- Giddens was involved with dancing and a Celtic group, Robinson was playing fiddle at square dances and Flemons was performing at blues and country gigs. It was at the event that they met each other and also met Joe Thompson, who is said to be the last black traditional string band player.

For nearly two years, the band would meet with Thompson every Thursday to talk about music and just about anything else. "We've learned his repertoire that he keeps around and then ... just like when you sit down with anyone who's older than you, they give you a lot of things that sometimes it's easy to tell and other times you can't really tell until later," Flemons says. "So far, Joe's just given us a whole bunch. It'll be years before any of us can truly decipher it all. He tells us stories about growing up. He plays a mean fiddle. He's the last bearer of his family's tradition."

Flemons says the band will still meet up with Thompson whenever they can when they're not on tour. Another thing they do when not on tour is research more songs. The band gets material together and puts their own spin on it while sticking to the traditional sound and meaning that was intended.

"I'd say for the most part, we get the recording -- an old recording," Flemons says. "Whoever gets the tune usually works it up and gets it good for playing by themselves and then the others join in and see if it works. If it works, we keep it. When we get the tune together enough, we play it on stage."

The band has released two albums in the United States and a third album in Europe under the moniker Sankofa Strings, an earlier incarnation of the group that was more into blues and jazz.

While the band is starting to get the reputation of keeping an entire music genre alive, Flemons says they try not to let that overtake them. "The ego hasn't gotten to us," he says. "The nice thing is that people aren't asking us to change. Change would be the hardest thing to do. As far as we're concerned, all we have to do is go to the gig and play a solid set. Some people see us as re-enactors, but we're not. We're just normal folks who play an old style of music."

Part of that notion of being re-enactors led them to an appearance in the movie The Great Debaters. The band is briefly featured in the film and also fills the soundtrack. Flemons isn't quite sure how much interest in the band the appearance has sparked, but can't imagine that it would hurt the band, noting that everyone is familiar with Atlantic Records, who released the soundtrack, and Denzel Washington.

While the band's main focus this year is on touring, they're also starting to think about their next album. They have enough material, Flemons says, but they also hope to release an album with Thompson at some point. They just hope their music will bring attention to a genre that hasn't been forgotten, but just may not have been noticed.

"We're a good band and we have solid material, but the fact that we're black brings another aspect, as does the historical part," Flemons says. "We just play the music and like it, but people can take away whatever they want from it."

Carolina Chocolate Drops will perform at 7:30 p.m. on April 5 at Northwest School of the Arts Auditorium, 1415 Beatties Ford Road. Tickets are $12 for adults, $10 for seniors and $6 for students. More information at www.folksociety.org.

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