Rhiannon Giddens collects songs, instruments and stories from all through history and synthesises them perfectly with her modern musical purpose. She believes in teaching us the failings of the past, to better understand our present. On her new album she has paired up with Italian virtuoso musician Francesco Turrisi, someone who shares her connection with folk music history, with his expertise in Islamic, Mediterranean and eastern styles. By pairing together on this album ‘there is no Other‘ (capitalisation deliberate) they want to show that no matter where we come from we are all one voice, one history, one future.
Ten Thousand Voices is an eerie beginning, setting the tone for this project. The simple arrangements of the duo make for an intimate and arresting sound across the album. The song was inspired by the story of young slaves who were coveted for the songs they could sing, the musical talent they had – treated like nothing more than human jukeboxes. The oxymoron of a voiceless singer exploited for their talents, is still chillingly real today.
The more eastern sounding musical influence of Turrisi is apparent on ‘Letter’. They pair may have easily merged their respective styles but the result is music that broods and blisters. There is little joy to be found on these songs of separation and loss. Wayfaring Stranger is so familiar and perfect for Giddens you do wonder why she’s never recorded it before. It finds a suitable home on this album, so concerned with travel and dislocation.
Title track there is no Other is an instrumental, an incessant building of tension through strings and beats, like each musician is working together to outrun some invisible force. The banjo and the frame drum combine seamlessly, a united front against whatever is bearing down on them. This musical connection between the players is so strong it was no surprise to me to read they are also personally connected in life too.
On Trees on the Mountains from the opera Susannah by Carlisle Floyd, she sings of abandonment, loneliness, cold winters, false hearted lovers. From that moment of desolation comes some Italian singing and rhythm on – Pizzica Di San Vito, a nod to Turrisi’s home country.
Brown Baby and Black Swan were both popularised by Nina Simone, and while Giddens may not have the cutting intensity or propensity for unravelling of someone like Simone, she still sees her as a kindred spirit. On ‘Brown Baby’ they both sing to a child, ‘you gonna live in a better world’, even though it’s a prayer for change, rather than a celebration of a certain future. The sufferings inflicted by the world unite these two artists across time.
The Appalachian ballad Little Margaret has a threatening feel created by Turrisi’s drumming, as does I’m on My Way. Sounding like a direct response to the modern refugee crisis, the latter song reminds us that journeys are often fraught and dangerous – only hope of a better tomorrow keeps you going. The album finishes on hope and a prayer He Will See You Through, sung with a simple piano accompaniment. Giddens’ voice is a potent reminder of the transcendental power of faith and music to make people forget their suffering, to rise above their pain, to help them keep going when waters are rough.
On there is no Other Giddens continues to be a fearless explorer of sound and song. She has found a musical soulmate in partner Francesco Turrisi and together you hope they will continue to steer towards new discoveries.
My only hesitation when it comes to this album is that it may detract attention from the Our Native Daughters project, an album of gut wrenching beauty that is equally vital work. I still feel like there is so much potential in that collaboration which has yet to be realised because of the absence of a major tour. However that’s no slight against this project and in the end I can only admire Giddens for her productivity. The MacArthur Grant has already allowed her the freedom to release two albums this year, to produce and present a podcast about opera, to collaborate with the Grit orchestra, to curate a celebration of black composers, to work on a ballet and an opera. This constant rhythm is reflected in her music too – she is always moving, searching and seeking out new songs and truths. The consequences are an overflowing potential of riches for us as the listener. I can’t wait to see where she sails to next.