Rhiannon Giddens Yearns 
for Home on Duo Effort

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Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi

(Photo: Karen Cox)

Rhiannon Giddens is homesick. That’s the partial theme of her new album, They’re Calling Me Home (Nonesuch Records), with Italian multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi. Giddens and Turrisi, who both live in Ireland when they aren’t on tour, have been there since March 2020 due to the pandemic. The two expats found themselves drawn to the music of their native and adoptive countries of America, Italy and Ireland during lockdown, and recorded the album in just six days.

“It was a kind of a lifesaver in a lot of ways,” Giddens said, sitting with Turrisi while speaking to DownBeat via Zoom in late March. She then rotated around to tell children audibly playing in the background, “Can you please remember that we’re actually working right now?” — a moment likely relatable for any parent maintaining a career these days.

“We were in the middle of trying to do Zooms and trying to figure out how to make this new life work, I suppose, and it was just very hard,” Giddens said. “We had just been starting to sing these old songs.”

This evolved into an album about “love and loss and longing for home, and just all the really deep emotions that have been surrounding us for the last year,” she said. “When you can’t go home, all of a sudden it takes on a different meaning than when you can just hop on a plane any time. It’s been over a year for me since I’ve even set foot in the United States, which is a very weird sensation.”

The album highlights these sentiments in Giddens and Turrisi revisiting “Waterbound,” a traditional fiddle tune first recorded in the 1920s that includes the refrain: “Waterbound, and I can’t get home, down to North Carolina.”

Giddens, a native North Carolinian, explained what it means to return to the Tar Heel State. “It’s being in the air where I grew up, seeing my family, just being somewhere where I don’t have to translate everything that’s going on. Ireland, it’s not like it’s Iceland, but it’s still a different country and a different culture. When I go back home, I know what to expect. I know what they mean when they say that. [It’s] just wanting even a little bit of taste of that for a minute.”

They’re Calling Me Home ends with an unconventional, wordless version of the hymn “Amazing Grace.” Turrisi relayed the story of its development. It began, he said, with him playing a large Middle Eastern frame drum: “I had this idea of trying to do something like a groove, but more like a pulse with a drum, and I asked Rhiannon, ‘Can you sing something completely free on top, out of time?’ At the time I was thinking about Irish, traditional music — Sean-nós songs, they called them.”

Giddens didn’t know any such songs, but began just humming “Amazing Grace.” When they listened back to the recording, they felt they were onto something cool. “I was mimicking bagpipes, because how many American funerals does a guy with the kilt and bagpipes come and play ‘Amazing Grace’?” she said. “I’ve been to a few.”

The duo takes a similar approach to instrumentation on the album’s opener, “Calling Me Home,” which features Giddens singing powerfully over Turrisi playing an accordion in a slow, droning fashion. “I find that the way that Francesco, in particular, plays the accordion is a different tonal vibe than what we are used to in the States,” Giddens said. “When we hear accordion, we think a certain kind of reedy sound, whereas the way he approaches it, the sound world is different. It’s deeper.”

This is a key idea to both musicians — to use an instrument however they see fit, rejecting the idea that any one instrument is owned by a given nation, ethnicity or culture.

“I pick up a lot of instruments that don’t belong to anything,” Turrisi said. “I go in with the utmost respect, research and try to learn everything I can, but then what, ultimately, I’m going to do with the instrument is my thing.”

Giddens added, “I think it’s joyous when you expand on an instrument.”

Some would say Giddens does just that, famously taking up the banjo after having studied opera and forming the Grammy-winning string band Carolina Chocolate Drops in 2005. Asked what drew her to the instrument, she admitted her answer could be lofty, but the truth is simple. “I could say a lot of things, like I felt the ancestors calling or it felt like I’d come home, but the truth is I just love the sound,” she said. “That’s it.”

Regardless, Turrisi feels it was an essential move, and one that informs their work and inspired their original connection. “We were noting the other day that Rhiannon studied Italian opera in conservatory, and I studied American jazz, and it’s funny because obviously it’s a swap of cultures,” he said. “But also, for me, the way we connected in the first place was, for me, through jazz.” Turrisi first discovered Giddens’ work in researching jazz and found it revelatory.

“I read an article about the Carolina Chocolate Drops, talking about Black string bands, and I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is the missing link!’ because nobody really talks so much about this in the history of jazz,” he said. “Everybody talks about brass bands and New Orleans and stuff like that. But that kind of link of the American Black string band was the first big fusion of all of these sounds that were in the Americas.”

The international scope of the duo’s culture-swap is felt across They’re Calling Me Home, and as such the album defies categorization. “For me, it’s very hard to categorize something like that consciously, because there’s just so many musical languages that I’ve been exploring, even within instruments,” Turrisi said. “I can’t really think what’s European and what’s American, really. I’m playing Arabic stuff on the cello banjo from the 1920s. It’s all like a whole big soup.”

Giddens agreed. “The record is a mixture of who we are, so that’s a mixture of American and European, specifically Southern Italian,” Giddens said. “That comes out of us thinking about our homes, our original homes.” DB



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August 2021
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