Rhiannon Giddens: Phoenix Rising

Not even a pandemic lockdown could keep Rhiannon Giddens from seeking new projects. Between making a new album with her partner, Italian multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi, and engaging in strategic planning in her new role as artistic director of the Silkroad Ensemble, the musician and activist seems as busy as ever even if she rarely leaves her house.

Giddens, 44, grew up in North Carolina's Piedmont, where her love of Roy Clark's playing inspired her to try the banjo. She quickly became curious about the role of Black musicians in Appalachian traditions. In 2005, she co-founded the Carolina Chocolate Drops to explore that issue. She is also a trained classical musician with a degree in opera from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Her recordings have won many awards, including a Grammy, and her vision of social equality through music gained her a MacArthur "genius" fellowship in 2018.

"My mission is to highlight the huge pieces of American culture that have been overlooked," Giddens said, speaking via Zoom from her home in Limerick, Ireland. "Shining light on that adds to the cultural conversation in a positive way. Every aspect of what I do is trying to shine that light. Music is the perfect tool to engage with this stuff, because people are not on their guard."


In all her pursuits, from her work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops to her participation in the Our Native Daughters record and the associated documentary for Smithsonian Folkways in 2018, Giddens has demonstrated her commitment to this calling. When, in 2020, she was offered the post of artistic director for the Silkroad Ensemble, the world-music organization founded in 2000 by Yo-Yo Ma, she studied how it might fit into her mission.

"The offer came at an interesting point in my career," she said. "I've done as much as I can with a music that's not commercially popular and content that is challenging." She started exploring how she could expand her audience, adamant however that this was not primarily about having a bigger career. "My career is a vehicle for the mission. I'm not looking to be famous or rich. It's more like, how many people can we reach with this story?"


After Ma stepped down in 2017, three ensemble members acted as temporary co-leaders. The directorship post fell to Kathy Fletcher, hired as Silkroad's executive director in 2019. "The organization was going through a big transition, grappling with a lot of questions," Fletcher said. "Are we a world-class touring ensemble, or are we a social-impact organization?" Besides this potential identity crisis, there were some big shoes to fill. "We wondered, how do you pass the baton from Yo-Yo Ma?"

Giddens's name came up because she had participated in a 2016 Silkroad recording under Ma, performing the song "St. James Infirmary Blues," on the Grammy-winning album Sing Me Home. Fletcher was intrigued by Giddens: "I felt like we needed a unicorn, somebody who had a global perspective but was steeped in American tradition. She has profound musical artistry but also a deep knowledge of the kind of issues that have plagued America and the world."

For Giddens's part, her relationship with Turrisi, both musical and personal, helped make her receptive to the prospect of leading Silkroad. "I'd always focused on American music, and I was aware of the multiculturalism of that. Putting it into the context of the global story was where Francesco opened the door for me." The chance to work with a wider range of musical cultures dovetailed with her wish to expand the reach of her sociomusical mission. "I think that at another time I would not have seen how this fit. It was just the right crossroads to be at. I thought maybe I could bring a unique perspective to the organization."


Giddens stepped into her role with Silkroad in July 2020, the pandemic in full swing. All she could do was plan for the post-pandemic world. This led to a project called Phoenix Rising, a concert and record that would celebrate both the rejuvenation of Silkroad since Ma's departure and the reinvigoration of the artistic realm after COVID.

In Giddens's mind, music is an ideal means of expression for these goals. "How do we celebrate survival? How do we grieve together the losses in people, in artistic work, in ways of life? When we grieve together, it's often through song. When we celebrate together, it's often through song. We're trying to bring together the different cultures and perspectives represented by Silkroad in a simultaneous grieving for what has just happened but also a celebration of starting a new chapter. It's two sides of the same coin, grief and celebration."

Many of the Phoenix Rising songs have already been submitted, and Silkroad is in talks with Harvard University and the American Repertory Theater about programming a yearlong reopening using those commissions. "It may take place in the arboretum at first, until people feel comfortable getting back out there," said Fletcher. Besides those immediate commissions, Giddens wanted to come up with a larger-scale project for the artists to dig into. She chose the American transcontinental railroad as an overarching topic, which could be interpreted in many ways and lead to a wide variety of works. Still lacking an official title, the concept is temporarily called American Silkroad.


In the history of the railroad, Giddens saw a chance to explore both the positive and the negative. "Obviously, [the railroad] was a capitalistic thing. It's to move goods, it's to connect the two coasts, it's to continue making America an economic powerhouse. There's always people who get used up and discarded in that process." The voices she hopes to represent are those who built the railroad, particularly Chinese, Irish, and African Americans, as well as others who were affected by it. "There's the seizure of Native lands that the railroad went through. A lot of stories that are deeply and uniquely American can be told using all the groups that are present in Silkroad now. My question is, how can we show that all those experiences also exist within the American story?"

For American Silkroad, which is expected to require five or six years to build its constituent parts, Giddens will be assisted by a committee of five ensemble members. "It's a combination of old-time Silkroad artists and new," Fletcher said, "a diverse group of really smart people. Rhiannon has been working with this group and our board and stakeholders to really dream big." Those dreams include at least one concert, an album, a children's book and accompanying record, and maybe a theatrical piece—Fletcher is hoping for a Broadway musical—a TV series, and a visual art exhibit.

Giddens is pleased by the topic's wide-ranging potential. "It's not just about the performances. It also has to be content creation. There's always been a huge educational component in Silkroad, but I want to make materials we can reuse, that other people can use." She hopes that diversified offerings will bring in a larger and a new kind of audience. "I'd love to expand who gets to access what Silkroad does. The cost of such a large group and the expertise involved has priced it out of a lot of people's range."


At this planning stage, Giddens encourages input from all the ensemble members. "We've been working on putting things in place internally so everybody feels like they have a voice, but it doesn't get stuck in inaction. We're just starting to get into the real artistic creation now, and everybody's really excited."

The merger of Giddens with Silkroad is off to a good start, Fletcher said. "She did a listening tour, talking to different Silkroad artists. I think some of them, frankly, were worried about bringing somebody in from the outside. But it took her about 15 minutes to win their hearts and minds over. She didn't come in saying, 'Here's my vision.' She came in asking, 'What's your vision?'"

The artists echo Fletcher's enthusiasm. Mazz Swift, a composer, violinist, and singer in the ensemble, sees the railroad project as a platform for change. "It's a chance to contribute to the righting of the (a)merican (lower case on purpose) wrongs of erasure and exploitation and a chance to model how much power and resilience there is in creativity. I'm really excited and grateful for Rhiannon's courageous vision." Silkroad percussionist Haruka Fukii added, "Rhiannon's unique viewpoint has really been sparking each Silkroad artist's creativity." As a Japanese immigrant, she feels a bond with the railroad project: "I'm able to revisit the traces of our predecessors in the US and explore stories that are often multisided."


thethanimal's picture

“They’re Calling Me Home” is a record to die for in every sense: musically, sonically, and thematically. I was hooked from the opening bars of the first (and title) track when I stumbled upon it a few weeks ago. “Breathtaking” is an apt description for the whole album, and I would elevate this version of “Amazing Grace” to “sublime.” I imagine this has been — or will soon be — in heavy rotation in Herb’s bunker.

Metalhead's picture

An amazing American treasure

Superb artist and on my must buy list.