Where to begin with the gifted, giddily-inspired and much-acclaimed Rhiannon Giddens and her fellow musical prodigy, Italian Francesco Turrisi? Well, they are entertaining storytellers, superb players and charismatic performers.
From North Carolina, the operatically-trained Giddens, on banjo, violin and dazzling vocals (Oh, those vocals!), wowed the sold-out crowd at august Sanders Theater at Harvard University with a sweeping array of compositions, both original and interpreted. In keeping with the sentiment of her and Turrisi’s 2019 Nonesuch Records release, There Is No Other, a confirmation and celebration of life as one unified world, they plucked and tapped and tinkled and crooned a gorgeous, intimate concert of deep-rooted African and Arabic, European and American sounds and rhythms.
These 21st-century griots delivered historical anecdotes and songs (one dating back to the 16th-century) with an enthusiastic generosity of spirit - always refreshing, never pedantic. As both an amateur historian and ethnomusicologist, and a woman of color, Giddens had plenty to say about the centuries of injustice perpetrated on her people. At the same time, she delved into their significant and influential musical and cultural contributions, as well.
A mother of two, she was devastated to discover in an article from an 18th-century New York newspaper a classified ad for the sale of a young black woman, baby optional. Like the inspired giants of spirit, Odetta and Nina Simone, who preceded her, she is using her pulpit not only to entertain but to educate. She accomplished both expertly.
In a whimsical nod to his Italian Roots, Turrisi related the evolution of the tarantella, a boisterous music and dance from the South of his country. When someone working in the fields was rendered ill and immobile by a spider bite, the doctor, upon arrival, pulled a tambourine from his bag and urged the afflicted, as a healing remedy, to get up and dance. A dance to recover from the trance! There followed a magnificent tambourine solo which, Turrisi laughed, confirmed its status as a legitimate instrument. Who thought a tambourine solo could ever be so majestic?
Conservatory-trained, Turrisi played accordion (another maligned instrument, he suggested), touching virtuosic piano and a masterful variety of round hand drums from around the globe. The latter was integral to the success of the show.
They harmoniously shared the spotlight with their absorbing, poignant and often hilarious stories and experiences, along with their brilliant rootsy catalogue: a stellar mix of rockers, lullabies, spirituals and ballads.
Addressing the challenges we collectively face, she mused, “These are hard times. There’s nothing to do about it or everything to do. I focus on our potential… with empathy, love, peace and kindness.”
Their excellent acoustic bassist, Jason Sypher, who uttered not a single syllable the whole performance, laughed when Giddens jokingly apologized that he has to listen to their blah blah the whole show.
With that, she engaged the crowd, which complied to sing along on a joyous chorus to Sister Rosetta Sharpe’s Up Above My Head, There’s Music In The Air.
In the end, what to say about these marvelous minstrels? Well, invest a couple of hours with these splendid roots-revivalists and be nourished and healed and feel a triumphant ten-feet tall.