Hoe-down fiddles, the rhythmic rattle of spoons and kazoos with some banjos marking time, and you could be – where? A fictive Appalachian town? Some 1930s travelling music show? Actually, neither: the Carolina Chocolate Drops are a trio of present-day, classically trained Afro-American musicians who are busy rediscovering and reclaiming the Piedmont string band tradition of which their ancestors were very much a part. Genuine Negro Jig is the trio’s label début for the ever-innovative Nonesuch imprint and it’s a joyous thing. (Incidentally, try not to wince at either the band’s name or the album’s title: both are examples of a sinewy détournement – an act of turning an older meaning right over.)
Coming together five years ago in North Carolina at the Black Banjo Gathering festival, Rhiannon Giddens, Justin Robinson and Dom Flemons are not interested in nostalgia – there is, for example, a decent version of Tom Waits’ ‘Trampled Rose’ included. ‘Snowden’s Jig’ may be a traditional instrumental, but the lurching dip and bounce of beat and fiddle on this recording takes the tune into strange places: shades of Kevin Volans can’t be totally dismissed. Similarly so with the superb ‘Hit ’Em Up Style’ – the band lends a lean syncopation to the old Dallas Austin stomper, and Giddens’ vocals have a modern R&B touch which makes the song irresistible. All in all, smart and very clever.