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Rhiannon Giddens: Connecting to her African American roots through the banjo

Adrian Florez

In honor of Black History Month, we are taking a look into the career highlights of African American artists and their contribution to the world of jazz and blues.

Rhiannon Giddens is a modern songwriter and musician, who is carrying the tradition of African American work songs and Appalachia into contemporary music. KNKX's Paige Hansen takes a look into her work.

Passionate. Learned. Articulate. Driven to the point of possession — her words.

And we haven’t even talked about her banjo playing. Or her voice. Giddens is classically trained and studied opera. She’s also an actress and has scored music for a ballet.

She is a founding member of the country, blues and old-time music band the Carolina Chocolate Drops, as the lead singer, fiddle and banjo player.

In addition to her work with the Grammy-winning Chocolate Drops, Giddens has released two solo albums and a collaboration with Italian multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi.

She recently appeared on a new Smithsonian Folkways collection documenting Mike Seeger's final trip through Appalachia in 2009 — an extraordinary glimpse of the diversity of the region’s old-time banjo artistry. She’s one of 19 artists capturing the lineages, styles, and techniques of the banjo.

Rhiannon Giddens comes from a multiracial family. Her father was European American and her mother African American and Native American. Her mixed-race experience gave her a keen understanding of racism — and for the music traditions of both her African and her Appalachian roots, as well as her love of the African-born instrument, the banjo. That has driven her musical direction.

For Gidden’s mother and father to legally marry, they had to leave their county in the south in the ‘70s.

And now she sees it affecting the next generation of her family.

Giddens has studied the history of slavery and the history of the banjo.

Some of her poignant songs dig into slavery, poverty and desperation — she says she can feel her ancestor’s watching over her on stage. In two of her songs, “Julie” and “Purchaser’s Option,” she shares the emotional pain of losing children to slavery.

One of her songs from a recent solo project co-written with her young nephew is about the plight of young African American men who face life and death situations at a heightened level in America.

Giddens music is evocative, startling and stunning. But there’s also a liveliness about her brand of neo-string music that’s providing new life — to an old form of storytelling.

Paige Hansen has been heard on radio station 88.5 KNKX-FM for over 20 years where she’s hosted news & jazz. You can currently hear her hosting jazz weekdays & Sundays. She is also an active musician, writer and singer.