CD Review: Carolina Choclolate Drops – “Genuine Negro Jig”
By ‘Rebel’ Rod Ames
Over the years, I have been “turned on” to an enormous amount of incredibly fantastic music, music that has in some cases completely blown me away. A couple artists and their albums that have accomplished the feat of “blowing me away” are artists that eventually became household names. Artists such as Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s “De Ja Vu”, Joni Mitchell’s,“Court and Spark” and many others to numerous to name. Most of these artists came out of the late 60’s and early 70’s. There was an unusually large amount of phenomenally great music that came out of this period.
For instance, The Pointer Sister’s 1973 inaugural self titled album, “The Pointer Sisters”, followed by Blue Thumb’s release of “That’s a Plenty”, took us on a journey of the jazz music that had to have influenced them in their musically formative years and were both, in my opinion, their best work. In fact, I don’t believe they ever got close to either of these records ever again.
This brings me to the subject of the day. Carolina Chocolate Drop’s latest release, “Genuine Negro Jig” (Nonesuch Records) is one of those records that completely blew me away. Yes, I can use phraseology such as “instant classic”, “innovative”, “and absolutely astounding”. This record definitely falls under any one or all of those phrases or words.
“Genuine Negro Jig” is easily one of the best albums I have heard in thirty some odd years. The vocals are as smooth as any I have EVER heard, and if that were not enough, each member trades off duties on banjo, fiddle, jug, kazoo, and beat-box and does so with an incredible amount of proficiency. I literally cannot stop listening to this record.
As the Pointer Sisters did in the early 70’s with their jazz roots records mentioned earlier, before straying so far off track and, in my opinion, diving off the edge of the world only to be swallowed up by the pop and disco insanity of the late 70’s and early 80’s. Carolina Chocolate Drops take us on a journey of the “jug and string band” music of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries of their ancestors, and they do it with flair. From the looks of things, I do not believe there is any danger of this trio abandoning what they do. You can tell by watching them they do this with the main ingredient, a heaping spoonful of Heart and a bunch of Soul.
They stay very traditional, yet add elements of modern music to these very traditional arrangements. The talent this trio possesses is incredible. Their proficiency on the banjo, fiddle, and traditional percussion instruments of the era such as the spoons along with other traditional rhythm instruments, work into the arrangements in such away that it nearly feels as if these instruments were new. There is no loss of the freshness of this music, even when Rhiannon Giddens blows her kazoo. I never thought I’d say it, but she makes the kazoo actually sound “cool”. When you add the element of “beat-boxing” (which I would not have known had I not seen it with my own eyes), the listener receives a dose of modernization within these otherwise, very traditional arrangements.
Each song creates an atmosphere of dimly kerosene lamp lit rooms with dusty wood-planked floors. The feet stomping on the floor to the beat of this powerful music creates little dust clouds around the listeners stomping feet. Close your eyes while listening to this amazing compilation of songs and see if similar images don’t creep into your mind as well.
On most tracks, there is a focus on the trio’s silky smooth vocalizations. Rhiannon Giddens is astounding on “Hit ‘em Up Style”, and it doesn’t get any smoother than Justin Robinson’s voice when he sings “Kissin’ and Cussin”. On other tracks like the traditional “Sandy Boys”, the emphasis is on both the vocals and the instruments.
As mentioned earlier, Rhiannon Gidden’s voice is amazing. Her voice is profoundly featured in a simple traditional a Capella tune called “Reynadine”. If there really are angels, this is precisely what they would sound like when they sing.
Carolina Chocolate Drops will appeal to just about anyone. One might hear them in Harlem, Nashville, Austin, or Hollywood. However, currently they have a very strong following in the UK where this record was released earlier. The point is, this band will fit in and be welcome where ever they choose to play.
With “Genuine Negro Gig”, they walk us through a period of American history that was shockingly detestable to any respectable American citizen. Not one American can deny this horrific past. However, that isn’t the goal of this recording.
This collection of songs serve as sort of a history lesson and graphically illustrates how music can help to get us through incredibly tough adversities. Carolina Chocolate Drops, I believe, are not only paying homage to their ancestors who sang and played their way through some incredibly harsh conditions, but are also attempting to resurrect an entire genre of music not just lost amongst African-Americans but all Americans. If I am correct, and this is in fact their mission, then mission accomplished. This truly could be a resurrection in the world of music we haven’t seen since Caucasians discovered Little Richard five decades or so ago.
The music had become sort of a defense mechanism to help African-Americans in the early twentieth century to get through some terrible hardships. Some survived this horrific era and some did not. The survivors came out of the ordeal stronger, wiser, and smarter, if not a bit on the justifiably cynical side. However, for having gone through it, they were ultimately better equipped for the next era, the era that ushered in Civil Rights and changed our great Nation, as we know it, for the better.
This music has been passed down through the ages. It is extremely obvious a lot of research and study went into the conception of Carolina Chocolate Drops’ music, and especially this record. However, most importantly, and as mentioned earlier, my two favorite and arguably the two most important ingredients to anything of substance, the Heart and the Soul prevailed in the conception of this artistically historic masterpiece.
Carolina Chocolate Drops are Rhiannon Giddens, Justin Robinson, and Dom Flemons, and are and will be for a long time, a powerful force in the world of roots music. This is roots music at its rootsiest and it must be heard.
‘Rebel’ Rod says you had better do what ever it takes to get this record in your collection. I promise, you will not regret it.