If there were a Grammy award for best ethnomusicology, Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi would have it in the bag. The two musicians released a joint album earlier this year, “there is no Other” (capitalization stylization intentional), that puts a whole new spin on global music, or at least covers a spectrum few other singular collections have ever recorded — closing the gap between her American milieu and his Mediterranean one with lots of stylistic zig-zags into the African and Arabian worlds that already bridge them.
And if the term “world music” gives anyone a case of the slightly xenophobic heebie-jeebies, what’s remarkable about the album is that it’s accessible enough that it’d probably be enjoyable even to anyone who picked it up just because they’d enjoyed Giddens’ acting on the last couple of seasons of “Nashville.”
“I feel like it’s what I’ve spent the last 20 years preparing for, to be honest with you,” Giddens said during an appearance at the Grammy Museum this week. “That’s why it went so fast” — 17 songs recorded in four and a half days, to be exact — “because it was just all of our lives kind of went into it, and we captured a moment. I don’t know whatever else I’m going to make in this lifetime, but … if I have to hand one record to somebody, this is what I’d pick. It’s this one.”
That’s saying something for someone who, at 42, has already made as many different recordings with as many different collaborators as Giddens has. She’s already had a Grammy in her arsenal for some time, having won best traditional folk album in 2011 for “Genuine Negro Jig,” the third album by her African-American traditional string band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Since moving on from that group, she’s done everything from record a fairly mainstream, singer/songwriter-type record with T Bone Burnett to join up with three other black women to form the historically inclined Our Native Daughters.
Our Native Daughters released their first album early in 2019, not many months before Giddens’ joint album with Turrisi came out — leaving open the real possibility that she may be competing against herself at the forthcoming Grammys in whatever roots category these ambitious efforts do get assigned to.
Drawing connections in a world that’s increasingly about tribalism and separation was the point of “there is no Other,” as you’d guess from the title. “I had been thinking of this idea of what the ‘other’ is,“ Giddens told Grammy Museum moderator Scott Goldman during a pre-performance panel discussion. “There was that flash of, that’s it. The more we talked about where our various music came from, the more we were like, if you go back far enough, it’s all the same, and there is no other.”
Easier said than proven, maybe, at least in a digestible 12-song album (with four bonus tracks on the just-released vinyl), or on the tour Giddens and Turrisi have been undertaking. But these two have done a remarkable job of showing how the instruments they use on the album and in concert — like the tamburello, frame drum, colascione, bendir, lute, piano accordion and minstrel banjo, among others — have crossed cultures and jumped continents. Even though, they insist, the recording sessions weren’t about proving points, but having spontaneous fun with the huge array of gear Turrisi packed into the trunk of his car.
“When I first got in touch with Rhiannon,” said Turrisi, whose family hails from Sicily, “I wondered if all these sounds that I have would work with her sound. Because on the paper, they don’t make sense. I was fascinated by what I call early African American sounds – the fretless banjo and all these things that come from the other side of Africa, (whereas) a lot of my connections come from this top side (of the continent). Then we discovered that they do sound really good together.” Giddens pointed out that the African/Arabian connection figured into the culture of the slave trade far more than most are aware. “Between one-fifth and one-fourth of people brought over here from Africa being Muslim — these are the kinds of things that we don’t know or don’t talk about. That’s my mission and his mission, and we’re just on opposite sides of the Atlantic.”
When they joined up with producer Joe Henry to make the album, or make something, anyway, says Giddens, “I had the same feeling about this as I had about ‘Freedom Highway’: I went down there to make demos and I came out with the record… after a four and a half day working period of actual recording.”
When it comes to working in haste, Joe Henry is your man, at least if you come in with a lifetime’s worth of prep. He explained his m.o.: Moving fast “keeps anything from becoming overly self-conscious,” he said. ”The more takes you do, the more people start wondering ‘is this working is it not working,’ and all of a sudden everything starts to become really cerebral. But in the first few takes, when people are not doing anything by rote but just listening to each other so intently, music just takes over. There’s no one who’s confident enough to start trying to drive, so the music drives. That’s kind of how we decided to work — not to mention the fact that the record label, Nonesuch Records, didn’t really believe that we were making a record. Dave Bither, the label president, said to me before we began over in Dublin, ‘Hey, if you guys just come out of this with a good idea about what this project might actually be, we’re going to be satisfied.’ Rhiannon and I laughed between us, because we’re always going for blood.”
As an example of the spontaneity, they recorded a spooky version of the operatic aria “Black Swan,” which was popularized in a different genre by Nina Simone, without Turrisi ever having heard it before. “I just played him three seconds, to get the bass line,” Giddens laughed. “So he just started playing that ostinato on the cello banjo and I started singing, I just literally rewrote the bridge as we got to it. I turned to the booth (when it was done) like, what the heck just happened? And that’s the take.” Said Henry, “It’s basically an improvised moment: Rhiannon is creating a new melody for this aria that matches the tone of what Francesco’s playing, and you never going to get back to that moment of sheer discovery.”
Engineer Ryan Freeland never stopped recording; he would just creep into the room as quietly as possible to move the mics every time someone picked up a different instrument. That’s why they all say there’s not a clean beginning on the record.
“Ryan and I have been working together for 18 years,” said Henry, “and we both have a love of immediacy. Not everybody is comfortable sort of being married to a moment, but I’ve learned that absolutely nothing that can happen that can’t be addressed if the wheels come off the rails — but what you can never get back to is that real conversation that happens in that initial moment. I don’t get hired by people, typically, who don’t have a fondness for kind of the viscerally human. To me, that’s what music is, when we hear human beings circle the same table. So I don’t think about perfection recording, and I’ve been working with Rihannon long enough that I don’t think she cares about perfection. I think she cares about whether the song comes alive, and does it exist as something out in front of us that doesn’t have to be babysat anymore? It takes its own life and it can walk away from us and move out into the world. I’m not really sure what the goal is, otherwise.”
Goldman asked Giddens what getting a MacArthur “genius grant” a few years ago and getting a lifetime Americana Honors award this year meant to her.
“When the MacArthur came, I was literally at a cafe in despair going: How can I continue to do non-commercial music with my commercial career?” she said. “Because I had a music career that’s like, make an album, sell records, sell tickets —and I’m doing it with, like, slave narrative songs. I’m paying for a band and a bus and all this stuff, while I’m talking about minstrelsy. I was really tired and stressed out. And then I got the call from the MacArthur and I was like well, hell, okay, I’ll keep going! It’s not that I was going to stop. I was just getting really worn out,
“And this Americana award didn’t matter to me — I was just really there to pick it up for Frank Johnson (who was co-awarded with her, posthumously), as his musical descendant. Until John Jeremiah Sullivan dug him up single-handedly, nobody knew who Frank Johnson was, and now it seems like everybody does. So these are the miracles that can happen that kind of make you go, ‘Okay. All right. Let’s just let’s keep going down the pike.’”
Following the Q&A, Giddens and Turrisi were joined by bassist Jason Sypher for a performance that even turned some of the songs on the album back on their head with different instrumentation. One highlight was “Pizzica Di San Vito,” which the duo described as “a trance healing dance, to cure the bite of the spider tarantula. So people used to dance for a week. Not straight — they’d pass out and get up again. I know you’d love to trance-dance, but I don’t know if there’s enough space here. You can trance-dance in your seat.” Perhaps needless to say, Giddens’ minstrel banjo was not something that the people of Puglia would have ever heard before, as they tried to spiritually exorcise the venom.
On a much more American note — for better or worse, at this moment — Giddens ended with the album’s simple album closer, “He Will See You Through,” a gospel song she wrote “being very frightened at the state of the world and the state of our species, but through all of it going, there’s got to be something we can hold on to. … One is the absolute beauty that we’re capable of as a human race. We are capable of such mind-blowing, amazing things, acts of kindness, acts of creation, acts of spirituality.” If only it were a permanent installation, but for one night only, the Grammy Museum claimed Exhibit A.