Ed. Note: The following story was reported and written by current Leadership Anchorage cohort member Chelsea Gulling. Ticket and venue information for the April 3 and April 4 concerts by the Carolina Chocolate Drops is available at the end of this post.
African-American old-time string musician Dom Flemons’s first exposure to Alaska was in 2007 when his band, The Carolina Chocolate Drops performed at the Alaska Folk Festival. While in Juneau, the band had a chance to jam with local musicians, and join in the evening bash at the Alaskan Hotel. “People were really great,” he says of his experience, “we hung out, went to a lady’s house who made us dinner, and took a plane to look at the [Mendenhall] glacier.”
“That was an experience in itself,” he says through a chuckle. “It was the first time any of us had a non-pressurized flight…we had a good laugh as everyone was grabbing for the sickness bag.”
Flemons plays banjo, guitar and percussion. He along with vocalist Rhiannon Giddens and mandolin player Hubby Jenkins compose The Carolina Chocolate Drops. Music fans can witness the passionate trio weave a contemporary charm into old-time black string music when the group returns to Alaska stages April 3rd in Anchorage and 4th in Palmer. The group is midway through a national tour in support of their latest album, Leaving Eden.
Prior to the group’s launch in 2005, Flemons used to strap a guitar and banjo on his back and take to the streets of his hometown, Phoenix, Arizona, busking the tunes of Dylan, Chuck Berry and Willie Nelson. “I never had a permit [while busking]…the police didn’t like that. I got very good at being able to pick up everything and run away very fast.”
Tired of playing alone, Flemons attended the inaugural Black Banjo Gathering held in North Carolina. It was at this event in 2005 where he met Rhiannon Giddens, co-founder of the Drops. Black Banjo scholars and musicians initiated the gathering in an effort to familiarize the next generation of black string enthusiasts with the African, Afro-Caribbean and African-American roots of the banjo.
Flemons was deeply moved by the gathering as it was his first exposure to other black musicians who shared his respect for the stringed instrument. “It was like a gathering of the minds” he states, expressing the relief he felt upon meeting other black string artists. “String band music isn’t really something that most people in the black community are aware of,” he explains “because it is generally classified as white music.”
In fact, long before white musicians of the Appalachia ever strummed a tune, West Africans were playing stringed instruments composed of a piece of leather stretched over a gourd and connected to a stick for the neck. Through the slave trade, this instrumental concept crossed the middle passage to the Americas and was known on the east coast as a “banjer” as early as the 18th century.
Flemons and Giddens, a soulful vocalist trained in opera, were interested in the history of the black string band and wanted to “keep the spirit [felt at the banjo gathering] alive,” thus, they formed a group called the Sankofa Strings. Sankofa is an Ashanti (Gold Coast language) word that means “taking the past and bringing it to the present so that it will move toward the future.” Originally playing blues and jazz, it was not until the group met Joe Thompson, a 90-year-old fiddler from North Carolina, that they began their old-timey tunes. It was in partial tribute to the then-living fiddle master that the group took the name The Carolina Chocolate Drops.
The young pair realized that if the tradition of black string music was going to be offered to the future, it needed to be appreciated in the present and they were inspired to act as couriers. “So that’s how we started out—learning history about black culture through folk music…it’s part of the American Landscape.”
While maintaining reverence and devotion to the historical tradition of African-American string music, Flemmons acknowledged the group must simultaneously respond to the musical tastes of a contemporary crowd. “Our songs are not meant to be true museum pieces…not meant to be in the past,” he says. “We adapt the songs to our own personal needs as musicians.” The Drops are, however, true to the sound. “It is important to play music that sounds right…that we keep the flavor and the essence of the old time songs.”
Flemons expresses that the trio continues to feel a profound sense of empowerment by the process of absorbing the glory, honor and pain of their African-American ancestors through the music they play. He feels called to present this gift to the larger Black-American community, understanding that this re-infusion of string music and black culture is the only way this tradition will be allowed to “move toward the future.”
However, as Flemons has come to realize, providing this offering is not an easy task and sometimes feels like fighting “an uphill battle.” Despite increased interest from the black community, the Drops often find themselves playing to predominately white audiences.
“There are a lot of black people who are interested in string band music, but they don’t generally go out to shows because it’s not the thing to do,” he says. For those who do attend, however, “black people feel validated by our music because they can show up and see black artists preforming” a musical genre that most often stages white entertainers.”
The Drops have witnessed a rise in the number of their fans of color since snagging the 2011 Best Traditional Folk Album for Genuine Negro Jig. Because of the unique style of music and commitment to authenticity, Flemons believes the band is falling into a niche genre as being “music of the fringes.” When audiences show up for the Drops, it is not just a musical performance they can expect. The Drops are known for their high-energy performances, which often include flatfoot dancing, jug blowing, bone playing and boisterous shouting. “Many younger black people and black hipsters who are interested in looking beyond hip-hop and jazz are listening to our music…more people of color are just catching up.”
To Anchorage-based black music fans, Dom says, “This is a part of our collective American experience.” If nothing else, he says, it's great dance music. However, he maintains that their music is for everyone. "It's not about being militant and saying ‘black black black’ all the time...It's all about being inclusive….trying to let people know this is American music.”
All photos: Crackerfarm
EVENT INFO: The Carolina Chocolate Drops are scheduled to perform Tuesday, April 3 at the Wendy Williamson Auditorium in Anchorage and Wednesday, April 4 at Vagabond Blues in Palmer. For tickets click here.