Arts Festivals are meant to be challenging, edgy, different and therefore there is an element of risk in what is selected. But with Rhiannon Giddens, the organizers struck gold as was evidenced by two standing ovations in the Michael Fowler Centre last night. Supported by her partner, multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turissi and bass-player Jason Sypher, Giddens took us on a musical narrative from the earliest days of string and percussion instruments as they accompanied the complex and fraught history of migration across Africa and the Atlantic.
Opening with Ten Thousand Voices from her latest album released last year, There is no other, Giddens and Turissi had the audience firmly on board as their vibrant rendering of the banjo and the accordion took us through what Giddens referred to as the “cycles of history”. They then moved to the second track of the album, Gonna Write Me a Letter, a bluegrass favourite from the 1930s.
With each item, Giddens provided a learned but entertaining introduction, placing each song and the instruments being used in the context of the society from which it emerged - but also mindful of the societies that sought to borrow or influence the piece at some later date. In this respect, Giddens was mindful of the early minstrel shows which although wildly racist did confirm that the fiddle and banjo were Afro-American instruments well before the hillbillies, for instance, purloined them.
Moving on to items from the 2017 album, Freedom Highway, Giddens displayed her own gift for recording history in song with At the Purchaser’s Option, a searing picture of the slave market and the forced separation of mother and baby. And with Wayfaring Stranger from the early 19th century and covered by many from Johnnie Cash to Ed Sheeran, the enduring folk gospel tradition was highlighted.
Not content to stick to what Giddens amusingly calls “black non-black music for mainly white audiences”, she is was invited by Turissi to sing, also from Freedom Highway, Pizzica di San Vito. This is music for a “pizzica”, a Sicilian variant of the tarantella – and what an electrifying performance it was. There was no going back now! And to rub it in, and to remind us that she was originally a trained opera soprano, Giddens sang to Turissi’s piano accompaniment, When I am Laid in Earth, the concluding aria from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas! Where will this end?!
A return to America, to the 1930’s vaudeville classic Underneath a Harlem Moon, preceded an exhilarating display of “frame” drumming (larger versions of tambourine, the Irish bodran and similar hand held percussion instruments) by Turissi who traced the development of this form of percussion from its origins in the Middle East.
I’m on my way from There is no other and the Appalachian classic Pretty Polly led to the concluding offering of the 19th century gospel classic, Up above my head, I hear music in the air.
The range and mixture of music, and the instruments used, suggest a complex entertainment experience but that could not be further from what I – and clearly, plenty of others - experienced. Turissi and Giddens’ relationship with the audience was at all times warm and engaging – and not without humour. But more than that, Giddens’ musical narrative was intellectually robust – and she had an affirmative and inclusive story to tell. Out of periods of oppression, cultural pillage and ignorance, she had identified the prevailing power of music and of its often exotic and distant origins. Americana? If you want, but Rhiannon Giddens prefers a more encompassing approach and in presenting it, she is someone who clearly is very comfortable with who she has become.
Radio 13 credits Karen Cox for all images in this review. As no photographers were permitted at the show, these images have been supplied.