By Colleen Walsh
The Harvard Gazette
A classically trained opera singer, accomplished fiddler and banjo player, Rhiannon Giddens knows plenty about various musical traditions, and now she’s bringing that knowledge to the Silkroad. The MacArthur grant recipient and co-founder of the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, Giddens was recently named artistic director of Silkroad, the University-based nonprofit organization conceived by cellist and Harvard graduate Yo-Yo Ma ’76 in 2000 to promote multicultural artistic exchange. Giddens spoke with the Gazette about how her own musical background helped prepare her for her new role, about Silkroad’s Harvard collaborations, and about its road ahead.
GAZETTE: What attracted you to this role?
GIDDENS: It came at a really opportune moment in my life. I’ve been digging, obviously, in American music for a while now and sort of uncovering things and trying to add to the conversation in a positive way, particularly with African American contributions to the picture. But a couple of years ago I made the acquaintance of and started forming a partnership and a friendship with [Grammy-nominated multi-instrumentalist] Francesco Turrisi, and what it did was kind of bring into focus where American music is in a global context, and the idea of what happened beforehand, before folks started coming over to America, and how all of those musical patterns happened over and over again. I started getting a broader awareness of that, of where American music fits in a global context. And so, I’ve been sort of sitting with that and realizing that that’s where I wanted to start focusing my energy. And then this opportunity came in, and it just felt like it was the right thing at the right time. If it had come in a couple years before, I wouldn’t have been sure. I would have thought that I still didn’t know enough. I wouldn’t have been equipped back then. But now I feel like I’m at least more aware and can learn the things that I need to learn.
GAZETTE: Can you say a little bit more about your musical background, and if you feel your experience will help you in this position?
GIDDENS: Most of my background is very much kind of bridge-like positioning. I have a degree in operatic and classical singing, and I studied a lot of Western art music. I had an apprenticeship in the folk tradition with an elder, African American fiddler. My family is multiracial, so I’m kind of seeing both sides there. I grew up spending part of my life in the country, part of my life in the city. So, in many aspects of my life, I can see both sides of the coin. And I think that kind of flexibility is really good for a position like this, to understand there’s not one way of doing things. I’m just very comfortable saying what I know, and I’m very comfortable saying what I don’t know, because I realize there is so much to learn.
GAZETTE: Silkroad engages with music from all over the world, but given your background will you try to bring an even sharper focus to the American musical tradition?
GIDDENS: The focus has always been on the idea of cultures meeting and taking these cultures, especially in the beginning those cultures that lined the Silk Road, and exploring how we are more alike than we are different. In my mind, the American piece of that has never been really thoroughly explored. I feel like that is part of what I’m bringing to the role, because I’m so historically based. I’m very interested in all of the cultural elements that make up America, and they are global. It’s a question of examining what happened here in the 1800s; what happened here in the 1900s; and asking, “How does that affect our music? How does that affect who we are in the world?” All of the traditions reflected in the Silk Road showed up in America. I think there’s so much scope for connecting it to the American narrative and making people understand that the American narrative is a global narrative.
We have sort of been told that the American story is this very narrow sort of WASP-y kind of American triumph, but that’s not it at all. You look at America, and you see these incredibly multifaceted, multilayered cultural collaborations going on all over the place. And then you have capitalistic and suppressed white supremacy structures, dividing and putting in artificial divisions where culturally things come together. So, I think that there’s a lot of opportunity to expand, to connect the mission even deeper to what’s going on here because, as we can see, these divisions are not superficial, and they’re not going away anytime soon. Anything that we can do to promote the idea that these divisions are false, that race is a completely artificial construct, is critical. Music is one of those ways that people see how naturally we come together. And that’s so important.
GAZETTE: Do you think the arts, and music more specifically, can help us move toward a society that’s more inclusive and tolerant?
GIDDENS: I think it shows the best of us. Nobody is born who doesn’t need music in some way — despite what people are saying about who’s essential and who’s not, and who we should be giving help and money to. The arts seem to be completely forgotten, even though everybody says, “Oh, you’re getting us through this pandemic. Please, put the shows on. Do this; do that.” Everybody needs it, but it doesn’t seem like it’s respected in the same way. That’s not really the answer to your question, but it is all connected because the arts need to be respected and because artists are cultural ambassadors. We respond to what’s going on in the culture in our art; I think the best art does, anyway. And it shows the best of humanity. So why don’t we celebrate that even more?
These divisions in the United States have not just appeared; they’ve always been here. Now, they’re just a little bit more obvious, a little bit more on the surface. And music is just such a powerful tool, but you have to use it in a way that’s rooted in understanding and rooted in knowledge, because it’s in telling these stories of our musical roots that I think the fullness of the power of what we do musically, what we do artistically as culture, comes out. It’s knowing where the banjo comes from, knowing that it’s an African-derived instrument. Then you begin to understand the sort of cultural conversation that goes back and forth for hundreds of years and has influenced all these different musical forms. And different cultures have taken different aspects of it, and it was this real emblem of America for a long time and then was twisted for certain reasons. I mean, if you follow the history of the music, you really follow the history of who we are. And so, I think getting that history out there is key.
In addition, music is blameless in a lot of ways. It’s very hard to get mad at a song. Some art is created to be incendiary, or racist, or whatever. But overall, the music and what comes out of people playing together is innocent. And I think it’s a powerful tool for that reason, because it’s pretty hard if you’re marveling at this piece of music to take offense. Instead it’s a way to absorb the idea that we are more alike than we are different. And the ways that we are different are ways to be celebrated because they’re all reflecting the same thing: the core of who we are, as humans. We have the same worries; we have the same desires. It’s just that how we talk about them and how we express them is different, how we express ourselves artistically is different. But because they’re about the same things, I think we always find these points of connection, and that’s really where the true understanding comes.
GAZETTE: What are your plans for connecting with the Harvard community?
GIDDENS: There are always too many ideas. Ideas and what to do are never going to be a problem. I think the important thing is to maintain and to develop relationships, and also examine how they are giving back to the community, and how things are being represented, and how are things that Silkroad is coming up with being expanded even more effectively into important partnerships. You can always strive for more, and I definitely have many thoughts about how all of these art forms work together.
Then there are the historical connections to some of this music and how it interacts with American history, how it interacts with world history. I think that there’s so much scope for collaborative projects and ways to disseminate the message of Silkroad across multiple platforms, not just shows or concerts, although that’s an important piece. There are also the academic connections and making those connections even stronger and really being clear about how this can be a more widely known thing. I am so proud because it’s such a beautiful organization and ensemble and the amount of talent wrapped up in this group is just phenomenal. One of the reasons I came on board is that I’ve always felt that the [Silkroad] Ensemble is not well enough known. I just think that there should be more awareness of what Silkroad is doing. And, in different places and different groups.
GAZETTE: What does music-making look like in the age of COVID for you?
GIDDENS: For me personally, I’ve still been able to make music over long distance with people and put the music out and make videos. But you know, it’s a different kind of art. You adapt to what you have. And of course, nobody wants to do this forever. But there are things that you can find that you wouldn’t have found before. I’m talking to people I was never talking to before. I never did Zoom. I never connected in this way. So, you take all the good you can out of having to adapt. You have to kind of pivot and just say, “OK, this is where we are. What can we get out of this moment? And sometimes it’s actually quite a lot.”
GAZETTE: Have you been pleasantly surprised by anything while working remotely?
GIDDENS: Well, just the possibilities like when Yo-Yo Ma reached out and asked if I wanted to do something for Juneteenth. Previously, I would have said “Juneteenth 2022 or 2023?” because we are typically so booked up. But then we were both in our houses, and all of a sudden it made a collaboration possible that wasn’t possible before. I had just written this song; it was an effort to respond to what was going on during the thick of protests. And so, I recorded part of that, and he added to it, and then you sit back and you watch it and think, “That’s pretty darn cool.” I really appreciate those moments that wouldn’t have happened in the before times, as we call them.
GAZETTE: What will Yo-Yo’s involvement be moving forward?
GIDDENS: You don’t have Silkroad without Yo-Yo Ma, because he is the genesis of it. He’s in the history; he’s in the DNA. He’s going to remain involved. He’s not going to be there all the time, but when there are moments it makes sense for him, and it makes sense for Silkroad, it will happen. But whatever happens with how much Yo-Yo can play with Silkroad, part of my mission is getting people to know what Silkroad is regardless of Yo-Yo’s involvement, in other words giving Silkroad an identity outside of Yo-Yo. And that means that he can engage with the ensemble in a way that’s organic, and there’s this special connection, of course, because of his long-term involvement.
GAZETTE: Regarding your song “Build a House” to commemorate Juneteenth, you wrote: “This song came knocking about a week ago, and I had to open the door and let it in. What can I say about what’s been happening, what has happened, and what is continuing to happen, in this country, in the world? There’s too many words and none, all at once. So I let the music speak, as usual. What a thing to mark this 155th anniversary of Juneteenth with that beautiful soul Yo-Yo Ma. Honored to have it out in the world.” Are you working on other music that speaks to this moment?
GIDDENS: I love to collaborate and when people reach out and want to say something and donate money to something that’s really important, I love to do that. I just released a cover of Portishead’s “It’s a Fire” with Amanda Palmer in a very different style than I usually do. All the proceeds of that song support the Free Black University Fund. So as long as that continues, as opportunities come, I’ll do it. In terms of songwriting, when it comes through me, and the emotions come in and it happens, I write it. The Juneteenth piece, “Build a House,” was the perfect storm of writing it and then having the opportunity to make the video with Yo-Yo. I have a song coming out soon that I wrote five years ago in response to the Charleston massacre at the [Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where white nationalist Dylann Roof shot and killed nine African Americans during Bible study]. It’s always going to be a piece of what I do. I feel so helpless here living in Ireland. All my family’s in the States, and I just keep reading the headlines every morning and thinking, “Oh my God. What can I do?” So, I just make what I can and get it out there.
GAZETTE: Do you anticipate these kinds of collaborations happening with Silkroad?
GIDDENS: Yes, and that makes me excited about the future. As strange as that sounds right now, you have to be excited because there’s so much to be depressed about. I feel so lucky because this is a really beautiful spot in my life and I’m getting to know people in the ensemble, and they’re all just really wonderful human beings in addition to being incredible creators and artists. And there’s so much love and so much desire to make a difference. So, this is where we have to live, in the hope of making things that can help make the world a better place. That’s where I’m living right now.
Interview was lightly edited for clarity and length.
(Reprinted with permission from the Harvard Gazette.)