It’s not often that you’ll find a set list that features early twentieth-century fiddle and banjo music next to late twentieth-century R&B jams. Nor is it often that you’ll find one that incorporates guitars, cellos, quills, jugs, ukuleles, bones, and kazoos. It is even less often that you’ll find that set list being played by a classically trained trio of twenty-somethings, or that you’ll find them live on a stage in New York, accompanied by a pair of the city’s premier ballet dancers choreographed by the legendary Twyla Tharp. This anomalous amalgamation, however, is precisely what you’ll find in the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a band of young, black musicians who have traded the somber-jawed, esoteric pedantry of ethnomusicology for the gen-u-wine article, becoming living, breathing, yip-holler-twanging representations of traditional Black American music.
Though their sound is light in spirit, one shouldn’t misinterpret the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ enthusiasm as an ambivalence to the gravity of their subject matter: they are careful historians of their craft. When the band’s original members—Dom Flemons, Justin Robinson, and Rhiannon Giddens—met at the Black Banjo Festival in Boone, North Carolina, in 2005, they were united in their desire to produce music that was at once innovative and true to the roots of Black America. The young trio sought out the tutelage of eighty-year-old fiddle player Joe Thompson, who helped them to channel the spirit of Piedmont legends from Elizabeth Cotten to Dink Roberts, blend it with knowledge gleaned from their formal musical education, and cap it with a dash of modern swagger.
When the trio’s desire to enlighten the public on the oft-neglected historical importance of black influence in Southern music—the African origins of the banjo, for instance—met their youthful enthusiasm to create something new, the Carolina Chocolate Drops were born, a band that harnessed the power of the historic Black sound and filtered it through a modern aesthetic, fearlessly blending Scottish Highland music with tongue-in-cheek renditions of contemporary pop, djembes with cellos, and yips and hollers with low moaning, bluesy croons, creating a celebratory presentation that was equal parts avant-garde opus, musical manifesto, and love letter to the past.
Though it may seem counterintuitive to harp on the importance of historical integrity while tinkering with its modern iteration, the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ creative take on traditional black music allows them to celebrate their history without getting bogged down in the self-conscious persnickery of those who follow its path to the letter. Their result is music that is at once cerebral and good old-fashioned, toe-tapping fun, and—arguably—a far more accurate representation of the music’s original intent.
“Tradition should be a guide, not a jailer,” has been the Chocolate Drops’ guiding principle, one that is reflected not only in their sound but in the fluid composition of the band itself. Though the founding members eventually parted ways—each pursuing the creative spark of solo endeavor—the dissolution of the original band proved to be more a genesis point than an end. Each vacancy left not so much a void as an opportunity, one that drew in a series of new musicians who came with their own unique timbre, spin, and talents, and who, after incubating beneath the safe wing of the Chocolate Drops, could break away to disseminate the enthusiasm and historio-musical ideologies of the band.
As a result, the Chocolate Drops have evolved into something far greater than the sum of their parts; they are the center star in an ever expanding nebula of black musicians that celebrate tradition, historical integrity, and uninhibited creativity. Free from the pomp, pretention, and punctilious constraints of academia, the Carolina Chocolate Drops are reinventing the field of ethnomusicology, and in the process, making a history all their own.