When the Carolina Chocolate Drops take the stage, they’re staking out a spot in a lineage that was old when their mothers and fathers were young. Though somewhat dormant for the past several decades, the old-time black string band is on the cusp of a revival, spearheaded by a host of young, determined and historically aware performers like the Chocolate Drops.
Based out of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the Drops are a threepiece combo that plays an eclectic mix of what band member Dom Flemons calls “all the sounds and styles that have either informed or are a part of the African-American musical experience. It gets so it’s diffi cult to fi t it all into the space of an hour-long show, but we try.”
Indeed, the history of black music in sixty minutes is a tall order that calls for a wide-ranging repertoire, but at fi rst glance the ensemble mix of Rhiannon Giddens on banjo, Justin Robinson on fi ddle and Dom on jug, harmonica, guitar and bones suggests a more strictly Appalachian regimen. “We don’t mind if people think we’re bluegrass,” says Dom. “It doesn’t matter how they defi ne us as long as they come and listen and enjoy the music. For the record, though, what we’re doing is social music it comes from a tradition of malleability. The artists whose example we’re following would be called upon to play popular tunes or sentimental ballads, blues or square-dance or any old thing that would call for bringing in a local group to play for a community. They had to know whatever the occasion called for.”
The band’s debut CD Dona Got A Ramblin’ Mind features an eclectic array of genre and form similar to the live show, with tracks grounded in a rough and energetic mix of country/western, ragtime, fi fe and drum, folk, Irish jigs and proto-jazz. The Drops approach their work with an academic eye their performances are sprinkled with asides explaining the genesis and roots of the sometimes century-old standards they cover.
The band’s fi rst incarnation occurred when all of the members met and jammed at a string festival called The Black Banjo Gathering. Originally forming as Sankofa Strings, Flemons and Giddens played with percussionist Sule Greg Wilson (who continues to guest with the Drops) before taking on Robinson full time and devoting themselves to old-time tradition.
Beyond performance, band members also host workshops for young and old that explore the winding musical journey of black string bands and the African pedigree of the banjo. “It’s important to have folks understand where the sound comes from, because this is everybody’s music,” says Dom. “We’re black and we’re proud to be black, but we’re not militant. A lot of people want to say, ‘It was black music and then white people stole it,’ but it’s a lot more subtle than that. It’s a cultural interchange that’s still in progress.”
“We don’t play the music with too much of a social agenda, though,” he continues. “It’s more about the songs. I’ve always been about telling people: Listen to the original recordings, listen to Blind Lemon Jefferson, Otha Turner and Libba Cotten listen to the sounds that brought us joy.” Not content to mimic great performers of old, The Carolina Chocolate Drops want audiences to place the band in the context of the original music the band covers. “We’re trying to give life to this music,” says Flemons. “Trying to present this music as salient to the modern experience, to say that we’re contemporary people playing this and it continues to have meaning and life today. If people get into it and then choose to go back and listen to this music we’ve loved that’s been our inspiration, then our mission is accomplished.”
This heartfelt acknowledgement of their predecessors has netted the Carolina Chocolate Drops respect from the old folk vanguard (Taj Mahal and Mike and Peggy Seeger count themselves fans), and their spirited, sharp performances have earned them a packed touring schedule<