Melissa Merli: Carolina Chocolate Drops brought passion, technique

Thank God for the Black Banjo Gathering.

That's where musicians Dom Flemons and Rhiannon Giddens first met seven years ago.

Out of that meeting in Boone, N.C., sprang the Carolina Chocolate Drops, an old-time traditional string band, easily one of the best on the planet.

This past week the Grammy Award-winning Chocolate Drops made a return trip to Krannert Center for the Performing Arts after being a hit at the 2011 Ellnora Guitar Festival, where they shared the stage with the legendary Taj Mahal.

This time, they performed as part of Krannert's youth series — captivating hundreds of young students, I hear. They also met with students in a discovery class taught by University of Illinois Professor Ollie Watts Davis.

Her students likewise were captivated, she told me.

The Chocolate Drops also performed in concert on Thursday night in Krannert's Tryon Festival Theatre. I was lucky enough to be at the sold-out show. The standing ovation at the two-set concert was one of the most spontaneous I've seen.

In the folk tradition, the Drops take traditional tunes and stamp on them their own personalities and verve, making the songs contemporary while remaining true to their roots. Before the songs, they offer up a little history — but not too much, letting their music do much of the talking.

Co-founder Giddens and cellist Leyla McCalla, who is with the Drops on their 2012 tour, are classically trained — you can hear that in the music.

The gorgeous Giddens, a powerful singer and fiddler, studied opera at Oberlin and sang opera professionally before becoming burned out on it. She got into other genres, among them Celtic, but took and stuck to traditional string-band music.

McCalla, who began playing the cello when she was in fourth grade, was busking in New Orleans when Tim Duffy of the Music Maker's Relief Foundation heard her. Music Maker introduced her to the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

McCalla is a member of Music Maker's "Next Generation Artists" program; it encourages and mentors younger artists who are performing Southern traditional music.

Music Maker also is working with McCalla on her first album, which will feature her original compositions, Haitian Creole songs and pieces composed to the poetry of Langston Hughes. On Thursday night, McCalla, whose parents are Haitian, played banjo while singing a Haitian folk song. Impressive.

Flemons, who wears a porkpie hat and suspenders in concert, played drums throughout school and was in his high school marching band. After that, he picked up guitar and harmonica and became interested in folk and traditional music.

The Black Banjo Gathering made him interested in string music; as a result he moved from Arizona to North Carolina to work with Giddens. (I didn't know until the Chocolate Drops said it in concert that the banjo is an African-American instrument.)

The other Drops member is guitarist, banjo player and singer Hubby Jenkins from Brooklyn, N.Y. In an online video with USA Today, Jenkins said after high school he began listening to blues singers of the 1920s and got into Woody Guthrie and other folk singers.

He was traveling and busking to support himself when he hooked up with the Chocolate Drops. He is now a permanent member of the band.

My concert companion on Thursday night has heard a lot of folk and roots music; he said Jenkins was perhaps the fastest and most dexterous banjo player he's ever heard.

I am not often amazed during performances. But I was on Thursday evening as I listened to the Chocolate Drops perform one song after another without letting up on their passion and technique.

A New York Times critic once wrote that their concerts are "end-to-end displays of excellence." Indeed.

Among the better-known songs they performed (and made their own) on Thursday night were "In the Jailhouse Now," an early 20th century vaudeville song on the "O, Brother, Where Art Thou" soundtrack, and "Jackson," for which Johnny Cash wrote the lyrics.

The Chocolate Drops basically perform Southern black music from the 1920s and '30s as well as other styles — jug-band, Scottish Gaelic, early jazz, old-time country.

The Drops originally learned old-time, fiddle- and banjo-based music by meeting regularly for two years with Joe Thompson, an old-time fiddler who lived in the Piedmont region of North Carolina.

Thompson had learned the music through family tradition; the Thompson family played for both white and black square dances. Mr. Thompson died on Feb. 20 at age 93.

The New York Times published his obituary, noting that the National Endowment for the Arts had awarded him a National Heritage Fellowship.

"And he is credited with helping to keep alive an African-American musical tradition — the black string band — that predates the blues and influenced country music and bluegrass," Douglas Martin wrote.

Now the Carolina Chocolate Drops are carrying on that legacy, and we are all better for it.

News-Gazette staff writer Melissa Merli can be reached at 351-5367 or mmerli@news-gazette.com. Her blog is at http://www.news-gazette.com/blogs/art-and-about.

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