Rhiannon Giddens Aims at 1800s America in Her Silkroad Plans

It was initially surprising news when it was announced in July that Rhiannon Giddens was taking over as artistic director of the cross-cultural music organization Silkroad.

What did Ms. Giddens — a vocalist, fiddler and banjo player known primarily for helping revive the tradition of Black American string bands — have to do with Silkroad, an ensemble founded by Yo-Yo Ma to bring together performers and music connected to the ancient trade routes between East Asia and the Mediterranean?

More than might have been apparent. Before Ms. Giddens learned to play the banjo, she trained as an opera singer. The classical world isn’t foreign to her, and she’s performed with Silkroad’s touring ensemble.

And her career has been devoted to the Silkroad-style illumination of hidden commonalities. As a history-minded founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and in her subsequent solo work, she has brought attention to the largely forgotten role of Black people in bluegrass and other American music associated with whiteness. Over the past few years, with the Italian musician Francesco Turrisi, she has been exploring the ways American music has always been “world music,” taking in elements from Africa, the Arab world, Europe and Latin America.

That exploration is at the core of her plans for Silkroad, which she began announcing on Friday. Her most ambitious idea is The American Silkroad, a multiyear project that will include concerts, commissions and educational endeavors focused on the construction of the transcontinental railroad in the 19th century.

It’s a major undertaking that won’t start coming to fruition for at least a year. For the moment, then, Ms. Giddens is getting to know the ensemble’s musicians virtually and is preparing a concert series for when live performances are again possible.

On a recent video call from her home in Ireland, Ms. Giddens, 43, spoke about her plans. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

What was your reaction when you were offered the Silkroad job back in February?

I’m getting older and had been thinking, is there a bigger platform I could be involved in that could reach more people? My partner, Francesco Turrisi, had already brought my music into a global context. I didn’t see the offer coming, but the more I thought about it, the more it seemed that this could really work.

It’s what I was looking for without knowing it: an organization that can do more than just one person doing a concert. And then you have Silkroad’s classical and folk traditions that I’m equally steeped in, and it does make a lot of sense.

I’ve been on either side of the fence in a lot of different ways in my life. That allows me to look at things from multiple points of view, and with a group like this, that’s imperative. I’m a bridge.

Why start with this transcontinental railroad project?

The first thought I had was the connection between the Chinese music at the heart of Silkroad and the Chinese immigrants who were such a huge part of building the railroad. But I’ve always been interested in the stories we do and don’t tell about the railroad, about African-Americans and native populations. All the roots of what’s happening in the country today are in the history of people mixing. I want to bring more rigorous historical connections and expose our mission.

What is that mission?

I’ve just come on board, and my job is to figure out how the ensemble is feeling and what we’re trying to say and to sharpen the details. “We’re more alike than we’re different” is a great thing to say, but how?

Maybe with a group that combines instruments from different traditions. But is there a risk of smudging the details?

This is something that Francesco and I talk about a lot. We’ve all heard these groups — I’m not calling out names — that just smash things together, djembe with harp or whatever. But Silkroad is about as far away from that as you can get. These are people who have spent the time together and created a sound. The instrument is just a tool. We’re all trying to tell the human story.

Through the mixing?

The reason that things can combine is because there’s a core of similarity. If different cultures couldn’t talk to each other, we wouldn’t have rock ’n’ roll or bluegrass or the blues. It’s the folks that want power who want to keep us divided. They’re the ones who say, “You guys invented this, and you invented that and never the twain shall meet.” The more we can expose cross-cultural collaboration, the better.

How?

It’s about specifics. There’s an ballad about the Cumberland Gap that’s been sung in white communities forever. Then these folks did this amazing research and found out it was actually about Black railroad workers. But that was erased and a whole group of people were forgotten and it added to the myth of a pure white Appalachia. You know, any time the story is simple, it’s probably wrong. The more I dig, the more complicated it gets. And that’s the beauty of it.

So it’s about complicating the story?

It’s about chipping away at who gets to say “I represent America.” There are so many stories that through music we can explore in ways that are thought-provoking without people feeling attacked. Silkroad has people from all over, and that’s what makes it such a great group to represent the American story, because that’s what the American story is. We are world music. With Silkroad, we have the opportunity to show that at the heart of American creation is the world.

Is expanding the audience also part of the mission?

Yes, that’s huge. I’ve had my own issues with who has access to my music, with ticket prices and a lot of stuff I don’t have control over. I wish more of the Black community even knew what I’m trying to do. But with an ensemble and a nonprofit organization, there’s muscle that can be brought to bear. There’s the concert hall, and there’s fantastic work in communities, but there’s a huge middle ground that needs to be developed. People underestimate folks all the time. There’s loads of people who would love this music but aren’t being reached.

How has the pandemic affected all this?

It’s been so awful for so many people. But I’ve heard a lot of my fellow artists say it’s an opportunity to ask what is our art for. We’ve created a consumerist industry out of something that shouldn’t be an industry. How do we align what we want our art to do with how we do it?

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