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Carolina Chocolate Drops provide rare, sweet treat

By Brian Baker, November 2007

Dom Flemons is an accomplished musician, well versed in the signatures and nuances of all of the genres that he has played professionally throughout his career. Two years ago, Flemons channeled all of his experience and knowledge into his explorations of bluegrass music, joining with like-minded friends Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson to form the acclaimed and highly skilled string band/old time/bluegrass-based Carolina Chocolate Drops.

The trio's instrumental virtuosity and inherent sense of historical perspective are displayed brilliantly on their debut album, "Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind."

Mentored by fiddle master Joe Thompson, the Drops cover a wide variety of bluegrass obscurities with traditional expertise and contemporary abandon, infusing songs from the earliest part of the last century with a modern, yet completely appropriate vibrancy.

Given that we're nearly five decades past the opening volleys of the civil rights movement, the fact that the Carolina Chocolate Drops are a group of African American musicians should not be among their most striking characteristics.

It is, in fact, the obvious lack of black musicians in the bluegrass field that makes the Drops so distinctively different. And it is their technical proficiency, intuitive talent and pure passion for the music that makes them an integral part of bluegrass music's long and illustrious lineage in general and an almost solitary entity in enlightening music fans to the history of the black string-band tradition specifically.

"We all have different stories, but the basic skeleton is the same, that we had an interest that grew out of this music, not knowing particularly that there was a black contingency for it or that it was strong in the black community," says Flemons from the Drops's Berea, Ky. tour stop.

"Most black people don't do a lot of this music because there's no context for it. A black kid growing up doesn't see a black person playing a banjo or a guitar, and a lot of major black recording artists don't play instruments, not out front performing. We all were just kind of odd ducks in our little ponds, playing the music in the communities that we enjoyed."

The Drops form a formidable trio because of the strength of the band's individual talents. Arizona native Flemons - the band's multi-instrumentalist, playing guitar, harmonica, banjo, snare drum, jug and kazoo - was schooled in various styles, playing rock, funk and jazz before branching out into bluegrass, folk and country areas and working out his chops as a street corner busker and coffeehouse denizen.

"I played solo for about six years," says Flemons. "I played rock and roll and pop, and I did a lot of writing of songs. I played Dylan and Cat Stevens and Leonard Cohen and Van Morrison, all over the place. Then, I got into older blues, that ended up really catching me. Then, I got into the songster blues, people like Henry Thomas and Mance Lipscomb and Furry Lewis. When I first encountered the string band music Joe was putting down, I felt a kinship to it by this other music that I'd been interested in on my own."

Fiddler/banjoist Giddens grew up in South Carolina in a familial atmosphere of bluegrass, blues and jazz, which ultimately led her to the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, but upon her return she was immediately drawn back to the traditional sounds of her upbringing.

Fellow Carolinian Robinson had an even more eclectic home life; his mother was a classically trained opera singer. His sister played classical piano, and his grandfather was an accomplished harmonica player. Robinson played classical violin until he was 13; it has only been in recent years that the fiddler and aspiring banjo player has explored the possibilities of old time traditional music.

The Drops came together a scant two years ago when the trio attended the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, N.C. Giddens, one of the festival's volunteer organizers, met Flemons and Robinson separately at the event - Flemons attending on the advice of friend Sule Greg Wilson and Robinson there to meet and learn from Thompson, the now-90-year-old fiddler and one of the last direct links to black string band traditions.

Robinson struck up a friendship with Thompson and began visiting him at his home in Mebane, while Giddens headed out to Phoenix where she, Flemons and Wilson formed a band called Sankofa Strings, which gigged around Phoenix and recorded an album of blues/jazz tunes, "Colored Aristocracy."

"The Black Banjo Gathering, that was ground zero," says Flemons. "A lot of things opened up there, and that's where we started seeing that we could give a good name to music that has historically given the shaft."

Eventually, Flemons decided to return to North Carolina with Giddens, swayed by the atmosphere he had experienced at the Gathering. Giddens introduced Flemons to Robinson, who by this time had enlisted Giddens to play banjo with he and Thompson while Robinson was absorbing Thompson's fiddle technique.

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