‘Othering people is something humans have done for ever’

Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi are fascinated with the influence of Islamic music on the West

The ties that bind, and the bridges that unite us. These recurring themes  form the basis of the musical alchemy that Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi revel in these days.

“It’s all about movement, for both of us,” Rhiannon offers, with an animation that has informed so many of her musical adventures. “Everything that both of us talk about is about movements of human beings and how we affect each other. If you just look at our range of instruments, where they’ve come from and how they’ve travelled across the world, it’s pretty amazing. Francesco and I connect: we find ourselves talking about the same things, but across the Atlantic Ocean!”

Giddens, a native of North Carolina, but resident in Limerick, has forged a formidable career, from her break-out band, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, to her receipt of a MacArthur Fellowship (also known as the Genius Grant), and her eclectic range of collaborations, from writing ballet scores (more of which later) to the Dylan-inspired New Basement Tapes. One suspects that not a blade of grass grows under her feet. Then there are her critically acclaimed solo albums (the first, produced by T Bone Burnett) and her background as a classically trained singer. Giddens is a woman who can strip it all back to the bone, though, with the banjo her constant travelling companion.

“The banjo is my chosen instrument –, it’s what I write my music on,” she says. “I play a replica of a banjo from the 1950s. It was the first commercial-style banjo in the United States so it’s the first one that white people played. Before that there would have been many years of black folks playing home-made plantation instruments: they would have been using gourds as banjos, and then it changed to the hoop and the skin stretched over that, and from then on that’s what all banjos looked like. Mine’s fretless, so it’s a kind of a bridge from the pure black instrument that it used to be to what’s become now – seen as a totally white instrument even though that transition was a lot more grey. There were a lot of black people who played the banjo for a long time into the late ’50s.”


Hungry for more

Francesco Turrisi is a Sicilian musician (living in Wicklow) who is permanently “musically hungry”. He has a particular interest in medieval music, classical baroque and jazz, and is the ultimate improviser. He is a multi-instrumentalist, an exceptional percussionist and pianist, and past projects include an exploration of the ties that might bind sean nós and Arabic singing (2013’s Grigio). Both he and Giddens share a fascination with the extensive and frequently unacknowledged influence Islamic music and culture have had on American and European culture. As a native of the southern Mediterranean, Turrisi is well-versed in the rich tapestry of Islamic and north African influences that coloured his own childhood.

“There are people who think the blues has a strong connection to a certain type of melismatic singing that’s way more connected to the Arabic world than it is to sub-Saharan Africa in terms of intonation and the style of singing.”

For Turrisi, his and Giddens’s collaboration can be boiled down to some very simple aspirations.

When it got wrapped up in the economic explosion that happened in the 1700s and 1800s, then it becomes very economically important for people to stay othered, so they could still be exploited

“In my head I had this idea of trying to combine some of my Mediterranean sound with some of the stuff that Rhiannon was doing,” he says. “Let’s call it early African-American music. I thought that it would be interesting to use an Arabic frame drum with the type of banjo sound that she has, which to me sounds very much connected to Africa.”

On their upcoming tour, the pair, who made their debut at the Baltimore Fiddle Fair last year, will air a set that is apposite for the times we live in.

“We’ll play an Appalachian ballad with an Iranian frame drum normally used by Sufis for trance,” Turrisi says, “but you know, there’s almost a trance element to the ballad singing and the resonance of the large frame drum gives a kind of a drone effect. And we have a minstrel tune on the banjo with a Sicilian tamburello [an Italian tambourine]. And an old time American tune connected to a Brazilian forró sound. They seem to go hand in hand: we’ve discovered improbable connections that somehow work.”

An end to othering

At the heart of the duo’s music is an intention to break down the othering that leads to walls being built, and tolls (both monetary and emotional) being taken.

“Othering people is something that humans have done for ever,” Giddens acknowledges, “but when it got wrapped up in the economic explosion that happened in the 1700s and 1800s, then it becomes very economically important for people to stay othered, so they could still be exploited. And of course it’s so politically important because the more that we come together, the more that we realise that we outnumber the folks who are trying to run the world and keep everything for themselves.”

Giddens and Turrisi were part of a seminar at the University of North Carolina last year, Bilal’s Songs: Mixing and Remixing the African and Islamic Worlds.

“I’m discovering so much about how invisible, othered and dismissed the Islamic world is, in terms of the massive effects it had on European music and culture,” Rhiannon continues. “For example, the massive impact it had on the African continent, the number of Muslim enslaved people there were in the Americas: way more than people think. It’s a really huge topic and we’re barely scratching the surface. But even having some of the rhythms and modes that Francesco has been working on through his music for so long match up so well. The way that both of us approach music is very similar because we’re both very educated about where the music is coming from. But when it comes to playing, we’re both just playing what we feel.”

Brothel owner

Another of the duo's collaborations involves the composition of a score for a new ballet, Lucy Negro Redux for the Nashville Ballet. Inspired by Shakespeare's Dark Lady sonnets, and the recent revelations that the dark lady of the title may have been one Lucy Negro, a brothel owner and prostitute. The ballet is inspired by a book of poems by African-American writer, Caroline Randall Williams that both celebrated and explored the theory. Giddens is fascinated by Williams's work.

“Williams was thinking of herself as a black woman and asking what does that mean? The most important writer in the English language wrote these beautiful poems about someone like me!”

Giddens and Turrisi is a pairing that promises to bear much more fruit into the future, including an album to be released in May on Nonesuch Records.

“We’re rare birds,” Giddens admits. “We found ourselves feeling a bit freakish in our own worlds, and then we meet each other and both of us say, ‘Wait a minute – you think that way too?”

Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi play The Sugar Club on Tuesday, March 5th, The Pavilion Theatre on Wednesday, March 6th. Full tour dates at musicnetwork.ie