NORTH ADAMS -- The Carolina Chocolate Drops take some of the past markers of black music -- even some that have been considered offensive in the modern world -- and embraced them in an act of reclamation for their musical heritage.
The band will perform at the FreshGrass Festival at Mass MoCa at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 23.
The band formed following the Black Banjo Gathering in North Carolina in 2005, where banjoist Don Flemons met future bandmates banjo and fiddle player Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson, who recently left the line-up.
Together they gathered material with the mentorship of legendary fiddle player Joe Thompson, who died earlier this year. The band is now filled out with multi-instrumentalist Hubby Jenkins and cellist Leyla McCalla, as well as beatboxer Adam Matta, who hasn't joined them touring.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops pull from a variety of sounds: early jazz, string band, jug band and any others associated with African American music circa the ‘20s and ‘30s, including a controversial form of minstrel music. Their album, Genuine Negro Jig, won the Best Traditional Folk Al bum Grammy Award in 2010.
For Flemons, the Carolina Chocolate Drops stands as part of a musical journey that started as a kid in Arizona with a mind for music that just wouldn't settle, following the threads from Dylan to Muddy Waters to Phil Ochs and beyond.
"I did performance poetry for a while, so I got into be-bop, and from be-bop I got into a lot of early New Orleans jazz. And then, as I stopped doing performance poetry," he said, "that's when I got into the older recordings from the ‘20s and ‘30s, so then I found a whole other level of influence that went on there."
The performance community in Arizona didn't necessarily widen the type of music he was exposed to, but it did give him the gig experience he needed. Flemons worked the scene, getting experience playing bluegrass and blues, and ex panding from guitar to banjo, harmonica and jug.
"I learned to listen in the jam and grab the right instrument and start playing -- and trying to make parts that fill them with sound without messing up what the lead instrument is doing, trying to figure out how to enhance the sound," Flemons said.
His performance experience began to cross with ideas he encountered exploring musical history, which led to experimentation, especially inspired by the late career work of Mike Seeger.
"He was taking different types of traditional music and mixing them together and creating these new sounds," said Flemons. "I started experimenting with that, where I would take a traditional tune and say, ‘Well, OK, if I take the vocal style of this guy and I take the guitar playing style of this guy and add it to a particular number, what sort of things can I pull out of that?' "
The challenge for the band has been to meld that musical archaeology aspect of their interest with the modern sensibility that they could not help but bring to their interpretations -- and to make sure each served the other in the name of making good music.
"Like ‘Old Corn Liquor,' that was a thing that Joe Thomp son had in his music tradition," Flemons said. "When I tried to take what I knew about the Memphis Jug Band or Cannon's Jug Stompers and apply that to this particular traditional style of music, it ended up bringing a whole different element to it, which was just one: fascinating, and two: people really enjoyed it as well. It ended up being artistically fulfilling and was helping to create something new and different, even with the music that we were doing ourselves."
It's a precise tightrope the band has to walk sometimes in order to keep what makes the song the song that is honored by purists, while still making it their own.
"The things are contextualized in music as a modern person, and we can't help but be modern ourselves," Flemons said. "People who know the material will say, ‘Oh my god, that's sacrilegious.' You're not using this, that or the other materials. There are certain elements like speech and certain ways that you handle the melody that have to be there or else it just doesn't sound right. It's always a juggling experience doing that."
One unlikely song that caught the attention of music listeners worked in the opposite direction, reconfiguring Blu Cantrell's "Hit ‘em Up Style (Oops!)" to be part of their own musical landscape. Flemons' approach to it demonstrates the idea that the portions of the puzzle apply to any given piece of music the band approaches, and Flemons works to build it in his head anew each time.
"When I started doing the banjo, I was thinking of several things at one time," he said. "I was thinking particularly of the Taj Mahal song ‘Leaving Trunk;' there's a particular guitar part. I thought about funk guitar and about hip hop and how they have a rhythm that fits in with all those different types of things."
"People don't even notice that we took out 60 percent of the song. Rhiannon took out a bridge that was there originally and there was a little bit more -- more verses and stuff. All that stuff got cut out for the most part just to find the essence of what fit within, what would make a really powerful number."
The political aspect of their work has not escaped the band, and they do put an effort into balancing the context of the work they dig up and perform and the responsibility to create something an audience will enjoy. Many of the songs they perform are from the post Civil War minstrel culture in the South, and banjo has been long derided as a racist affectation in regard to African Americans.
"We do not negate that we're modern people; we're modern black performers. We make a point of saying that in the show, like Rhiannon saying we're going to do a tune from 1855, we're going back to 1855 musically, but we're not physically going back there. It's very important to let people know that that's not a nostalgia trip that we need to go down, but we can listen and learn from these types of old music, and also see where we've come and where we still have to work on things. Just having a black string band and picking up a banjo as a black person, that in itself has a political statement wrapped up in it."
The band's hope is that the music is not only enjoyed by listeners, but expanded upon in the form of either casual learning or even scholarship.
"Even just saying, ‘Did you know that the banjo is an African derived instrument and that it's an African American instrument?' That in itself is a statement that people who don't know will say ‘Really, I didn't know about that.' And then they go for a history book and boom, you've got the rest of your life to research different aspects of this very complex, very fascinating and also very liberating knowledge of the history of our country."
The history isn't mandatory to enjoying the music, though. The important part is in the dignity of the tunes and the way the band brings them into the 21st century by neither commandeering them nor prostrating themselves to them. Somewhere in between, the Carolina Chocolate Drops work side-by-side with the songs.
"The music has to be good enough for people to just listen to and say ‘I like this' before we bring all the history stuff into it. If people can't enjoy the music, that's when it becomes a museum piece, when it's more important to say all the history stuff compared to the actual performance of the music."
"We've tried to be historically minded, but also we're very aware that we're entertainers on stage and we're presenting music to entertain people so that they walk away feeling good. We're just fortunate that people have really caught onto it at the same time. That's been such an important element, that we've had an audience that has wanted to listen to the music at the same time."
The Carolina Chocolate Drops can be found online at www.carolinachocolatedrops.com.