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Playing it forward 

A different shade of "old time"

It had already been decided that Rhiannon Giddens and Sule Greg Wilson would play music together in a string band. But if it's possible for a done deal to become even more done, that's what happened when the former heard the latter take off on "Old Joe Clark" and give it a familiar swing--familiar, at least, to her.

"I came up with that a few years ago before I was really getting into this black banjo stuff," says Giddens of her take on the chestnut. "And Sule was in Arizona thinking of it from an African-American viewpoint. So he was messing with it, and he came up with the same lick. Who knows if mine was racially induced, if it was in my genes. I don't know. I don't really care. But it was a neat moment of 'Hey, we're thinking along the same lines!'"

Giddens, a native of the Carolina Piedmont, carries versatility almost to an extreme, calling contra dances one night and then leading her Celtic band Gaelwynd the next. The Washington, D.C.-raised, Arizona-based Wilson is a veteran performer and educator. The two met over e-mail in late 2004 when they were helping to plan the inaugural Black Banjo Then and Now Gathering, which was held in Boone this past April. (See www.blackbanjo.com for more information.) Meeting in person at the gathering, they clicked, and they also felt an instant kinship, musical and otherwise, with another participant, a young guy from Phoenix named Dom Flemons.

The trio kept in touch after the gathering, and soon Giddens found herself flying to Arizona where several gigs had been lined up for this fledgling string band going by the name Sankofa Strings. That they had never officially played together didn't seem to be a point of concern. After spending three days in Wilson's garage working out songs, they debuted at the Flagstaff Folk Festival, and clips from the festival reveal a brand new band that's, somehow, in full bloom. Their version of "Little Sadie" could outrace a down-mountain train, while a take on "Like Likker Better 'n Me" finds them equally comfortable moving at ballad speed.

With Giddens playing five-string banjo and fiddle, Wilson also playing the five-string along with ukulele and percussion, Flemons contributing four-string banjo, guitar, harmonica, jug and kazoo, and all three singing, Sankofa Strings is built, by design, for variety. "I have found, generally, in the old-time community that people have this idea that old-time is this tune and that tune, it's a fiddle and a banjo and a guitar. There's sort of this codification of what old-time is," explains Giddens. "But back in the day, it was whatever people wanted to play." Embracing that eclecticism as well as the knowledge that a high percentage of the string bands in the '20s were composed of black musicians, Sankofa Strings line up blues tunes, found folk songs, sea shanties and even Afro-pop numbers alongside string band standards.

It's clear that Giddens doesn't want to appear overly critical of the old-time community, but there's definitely a clash of philosophies afoot. "Don't get me wrong. I really admire the people on these listservs who have all this information. Without them, there'd be so much less we'd be able to pull from," Giddens offers. "But we're trying to be the other part, getting out there into the community and make this music alive again."

She continues, "That's the whole Sankofa Strings philosophy: bringing it forward. Go back and get it, but then move it forward. Don't just go back and get it and sit on it."

Sankofa Strings play an afternoon house concert sponsored by the Triangle Folk Music Society on Sunday, Oct. 16. See www.rtpnet.org/~folk for concert details.

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