Rhiannon Giddens inspires Oberlin youth
Posted October 28, 2019 in Articles
Author: Kevin Martin
A 2000 graduate of Oberlin College, Giddens, 42, is the co-founder of the Grammy Award winning strike band Carolina Chocolate Drops and spoke about the complexities of race and gender in American folk and bluegrass music.
Hosted at the historic Henry’s Barn, this Community Concert provides Oberlin Center for the Arts an opportunity to give voice to issues that people think are important to this region and the world.
Darren Hamm, executive director for the Oberlin Center for the Arts, said the series aims at facilitating important conversations in the arts, with Giddens presenting to an audience of area high school students.
Carving a path
"One of the most important things about her music is that she's carving a path that is both filled with tradition, and new ideas and new music,” Hamm said. “And just bringing that to a wide array of audiences and spreading this early American music and new music, occurs with such passion and beauty.”
On tour in support of her new album, “there is no Other,” in collaboration with Italian multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi, Giddens, a North Carolina native currently living in Ireland, is passionate about telling women’s stories and re-interpreting traditional Appalachian folk music.
“We capitalized other, and everything else, is not capitalized on to make the point of, we're pulling these musics that are, you know, crossing the ocean, but they're all connected,” she said. “They were connected, you know, so many different ways.
"And that's to say that we're not the same people. We're not the same humanity when our music was continuously bringing us together.”
Performing on fiddle and banjo, Giddens spoke of the impact of meeting old-time North Carolina fiddler Joe Thompson, one of the musicians to carry on the tradition of the black string band.
In meeting him when he was 86 years old, she said it encouraged her to explore stories such as the forgotten African origins of the banjo.
Meeting and learning old fiddle and banjo tunes from Thompson challenged the idea that the banjo was an instrument invented by white people in the Appalachian Mountains, Giddens said.
“It was actually a mixed instrument, but it came from Africa," she said. "And so, I got really into that and I started thinking what else are they not telling us, right?
"What else are you telling us about how we come together in this country? So, I found Joe Thompson and I will realized that they were black people who played fiddles and banjos for a long time. And he (Thompson) was one of the last of that whole tradition.”
After performing “Black Annie,” a song she learned from Thompson, Giddens discussed the importance of using her voice to tell stories that needed to be told.
“Right so for me, I found the banjo, I found Joe (Thompson) and I found a way to use my training here from Oberlin, and then I found the stories,” she said.
Giddens performed an original song, “At the Purchaser’s Option,” which explores the complexities of the concept of being enslaved.
"As you think about people who are enslaved here in this country, but you also have to think about people who are still enslaved, which people instill in psychology all over the world," she said. "And so, I thought about like, what it would take to get him today if you didn't have any control over part of your life, and especially for women.
"That's been my focus is women's stories because they often get left out."
Women’s representation in the arts
Hamm says the arts industry still is struggling with providing equal representation for women.
On stage, less than 25 percent of produced works are written by women while in museums, women are between three to five percent of artists in major collections, he said.
In addition in film, it is estimated that women receive half of the screen time as opposed to men, Hamm said.
In arts leadership, while women hold upward of two thirds of jobs, they receive 25-40 percent less in salary, he said.
“We see Rhiannon Giddens as a messenger for traditions in music, an ambassador of history and culture,” Hamm said. “We’re proud to provide an opportunity to highlight her work and create a space whereby others can be inspired to pursue leadership roles and to follow in her path."
The performance was about inspiring students with Giddens' story comprising individuals from area schools who identify as female or are non-binary identifying ... in a discussion around a variety of issues including traditional American roots music and the issues of gender and race in the arts among others.
Giddens said exposing youth to important conversations and topics in the arts and allowing this exploration is part of the fabric toward social change.