Before seeing them nominated for Best Album of 2010 here on the site, I’d never heard of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. As soon as I checked them out, though, I was hooked. Their old-time strings and new-time vibe have generated a lot of buzz this year, including a Grammy nomination. Dom Flemons took some time to chat with me about the album, the band, and what’s next for them.
Leona Laurie: I’ve seen you described as an “old time string band,” “bluegrass,” and your album “Genuine Negro Jig was nominated for a Grammy this year under the “Best Traditional Folk Album” category. How would you describe your music? What genre would you say you fall into?
Dom Flemons: Well it’s really hard to classify what we do, just because it fits into all three of those things. When people ask me, I say we play old time fiddle & banjo music. If I talk more, I let them know we play old-time blues, country music, and jazz as well. All those things have elements in all those genres. Old time is the safest. We’re not a bluegrass group. Bluegrass tends to be old time music sped up a bit, and we tend to be in that bag because of the nature of where our music is.
LL: The band is you, Dom Flemons, on 4-string banjo, guitar, jug, harmonica, kazoo, snare drum and “bones”; Rhiannon Giddens on 5-string banjo, fiddle and kazoo; and Justin Robinson on 5-string banjo, fiddle, autoharp, jug and beatbox. What are the Bones?
DF: The bones are bones, literally. One set I have are bone, and the other set I have are wood. They’re like two little curved sticks, and you hold them between the fingers, and they make a clicking sound. When you hear on the new album “Peace Behind the Bridge,” and you hear a clicking sound—very rhythmic—that’s the bones. Also “Cindy Gal,” that’s another one. They’re a very old instrument. They don’t know exactly where they’ve come from—like the banjo, they have a pretty varied history. The bones tend to have more European antecedents and some African, and the Banjo has more African with some European stuff that got added to it.
LL: I heard that you all met at the “Black Banjo Gathering” in North Carolina in 2005. Is that the whole story of how you met & came together? Tell me about the genesis of the band & how you work together.
DF: That was really the event that started us. It started the journey. I’m from Arizona originally. Rhiannon and Justin are both from North Carolina.
The Black Banjo Gathering grew out of a list-serve on the black and African roots of the banjo– it’s one of those things in history that’s hidden in plain site. Rhiannon & myself met there, and Rhiannon met Justin there.
A few months after, Rhiannon and I started a group called San Kofa Strings, which is a proverb that means “take the good things from the past and bring them into the future.” A few months after that, I moved to NC, and by then Justin had started playing with Joe Thompson, a 92-year-old fiddler who’s been paying since he was a little boy. Justin started going to Joe’s house and learning the tunes. Rhiannon joined him on the banjo, and I joined them. That’s where we started the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
It’s been pretty surprising to see how far we’ve come—and how the audience has really been interested, and how much awareness we’ve been able to create about a lesser-known genre of music.
LL: I’d like to know more about Genuine Negro Jig. What went into the tracks on this album? Why do you think this is the one that seems to be bringing you into the mainstream with the Grammy nomination, your performance at Bonnaroo this year, and now your prestigious selection for Number One Album of 2010 by our readers?
DF: The track listing, the actual order, that was from Joe Henry. The tunes themselves, most of them we’ve been playing in concert for a while. We met up with Nonesuch records, which helped us expand our audience this year. They hooked us up with Joe Henry as well.
Everything but “Trampled Rose,” “Why Don’t You Do Right,” and “Kissin’ & Cussin’” and “Reynadine,” those are the ones we hadn’t played previously. We had a San Kosa Strings album that came out immediately before our Dona Got a Rambling Mind album. Carolina Chocolate Drops was supposed to be a straight-ahead old time band. We’d put out an import CD and another CD with Joe Thompson, but the question of whether we could do anything else beyond old-time was lingering. Genuine Negro Jig was the full confirmation that we can do other things, and that it still makes sense.
The momentum has grown over the past few years with Nonesuch, and people have really enjoyed the album, so that’s really helped us out. Also this year, we’ve also made a concentrated effort to reach out to a younger audience. Also, as black performers, we try to put the word out to the black community, and this year has really expanded our audience in the black community just a little bit.
LL: 2010 seems to have been a huge year for you. What’s next for The Carolina Chocolate Drops?
DF: Right now we’re taking the holidays off. Taking a little bit of a break to regroup & figure out some new goals, because we really fulfilled a bunch of them this year with the stuff we’ve been able to do and extra accolades we hadn’t expected. The Grammy Nomination came up really fast. We were at the AMA awards—we got nominated for best new group. We’ve gotten to do a lot of really lovely things. We’re going to get back on it, do some more dates and try to cut a new album. Hopefully by 2012 we’ll have another album.
We’re working on a show in conjunction with the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago that’ll focus on the roots of black vaudeville. It’s one of those things that’s interwoven with the minstrel show of the late 1800s, but it’s a particular genre that grew between the 1890s and the teens. We hope to create more awareness and entertain folks by helping them enjoy the music.
We’re going to take it a little bit easy—relatively—just so we can have our lives as well as our creative outlets.
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