With her 21st-century sound, Rhiannon Giddens brings the memories and music of her predecessors to life. In 2017, Giddens released her solo studio album, Freedom Highway — the title track of which is a 1965 civil rights protest song. In 2019, Giddens produced the album Songs of Our Native Daughters, which explores themes of inherited trauma and the legacy of slavery in North America, specifically from the perspectives of Black women.
Both years saw Giddens perform in the Chautauqua Amphitheater. With the help of her modst recent album, she is again bringing an educational experience to Chautauqua’s online platform.
“She keeps producing new music, so I want to keep giving her a platform to share it with the world,” said Vice President of Performing and Visual Arts Deborah Sunya Moore.
Giddens, a roots music singer-songwriter, will perform with jazz musician Francesco Turrisi at 5 p.m. EDT Friday, July 3, on CHQ Assembly’s Video Platform.
Formerly the lead singer, violinist and banjo player of the all-Black, folk-inspired band Carolina Chocolate Drops, Giddens has spent her entire career highlighting African influences in American music, a history she first brought to the Amphitheater stage as a solo act in 2017. That same year, she was awarded the 2017 MacArthur “Genius” Grant for her work reclaiming the African influence in American music.
“When I first had her, we had just started the Evie and Stacey Berger Endowment for Emerging Artists, which presented an incredible opportunity for us,” Moore said. “Even though (Giddens had) definitely emerged by that point, I knew she was new to Chautauqua. Chautauquans, of course, just fell in love with her, her voice and her band.”
Turrisi is the leader and founder of The Taquín Experiments, a contemporary jazz ensemble that works with world and early music. He has released six critically acclaimed albums through Diatribe Records and his own record label, Taquin Records.
Giddens and Turrisi made their first Chautauqua appearance together in 2018. During that visit, the pair worked with the Nashville Ballet, the company’s artistic director, Paul Vasterling, and poet Caroline Randall Williams to create a ballet set to Giddens’ music and based upon Williams’ poetry collection Lucy Negro, Redux. The project explores the idea that William Shakespeare’s “Dark Lady,” who appears in many of his sonnets, was actually a Black woman.
Giddens came back to the Institution once more in 2019 as part of the Americana folk quartet, Our Native Daughters. From the perspectives of Black women, the group used music to explore themes of inherited trauma and the legacy of slavery in North America.
“Everything she does ends up being so educational and so focused on cultural learning,” Moore said. “She is often talking about how the banjo was a Black instrument first. There were Black string bands way before white musicians began learning the banjo. … There is this hidden history that we don’t know and those are things Rhiannon is trying to not only uncover, but also celebrate.”
For their 2020 return, Giddens and Turrisi will be performing from Ireland, where Giddens has a home in County Limerick. Despite the distance, Moore said the concert is designed “especially for Chautauqua.”
Giddens and Turrisi will share music from their new album There is No Other. The album has 12 tracks, including renditions of American and European folk songs such as “Wayfaring Stranger” and “Brown Baby.”
In 2019, Giddens told Rolling Stone that There Is No Other provides a more expansive view of her mission of “reclamation and re-contextualization.”
“It’s not so much that this one is a personal record, but I could express myself using all of what I do in a way I haven’t really been able to do before,” Giddens told Rolling Stone. “I was pulling in things from my classical background, and doing banjo as well.”
Other instruments on the album include octave violin and viola. For one track, “Pizzica di San Vito,” she even sings in Italian.
When Turrisi and Giddens have finished their performance, Moore will host a 20-minute Q-and-A, where audience members can submit questions for the duo at www.questions.chq.org, or on Twitter using #CHQ2020. Moore said she is certain the discussion will be an educational experience for those who stick around.
“There are some artists I feel like are a total match for Chautauqua, in that they are not just about entertainment, but they are about content, they are about action, they are about doing something in the world,” Moore said. “I think Rhiannon Giddens could just as easily be on our education platform as she is on the arts platform in the evening because she is such a content-rich and mission-driven artist.”
This program is made possible by the Evie and Stacey Berger Endowment for Emerging Artists & the Scott and Patti Fine Endowment Fund.