Rhiannon Giddens' songwriting takes history seriously

The line for Rhiannon Giddens’ sold-out performance at the Chan Centre was by far the longest the venue has seen this season.

Giddens has made her mark in pretty much every string band genre imaginable, so it makes sense that she would draw in crowds. She’s won two Grammy Awards for her folk albums, composed a Pulitzer Prize-winning opera and has received a MacArthur “Genius” grant. Not only has she tried her hand at everything — she’s the best at all of it.

Before Giddens’ set, opener Charly Lowry, an Indigenous activist and artist from the Lumbee and Tuscarora tribes, offered a careful balance of sweetness and edge. Even before she made a sound, her studded leather jacket with fringes paired with a long flowing skirt already reflected her musical style: warm and welcoming, but not to be messed with.

Although she didn’t have a band to back her up, Lowry’s powerful voice effortlessly filled the space. She even abandoned her instruments for an a cappella cover of Willie Nelson’s “Crazy,” the perfect song to showcase her rasp and North Carolina drawl.

Lowry accompanied her singing with guitar and hand drum, the latter learned from mentor Pura Fé. It’s an instrument that women are not typically encouraged to play in Lowry’s community, but although she respects tradition, she isn’t bound to it.

This is music that takes history seriously. Giddens time-travels from 19th-century spirituals to Dolly Parton-inspired ballads, all honouring the specific contexts of transformation, pain and survival they sprung from.

Giddens’ band takes themselves less seriously. Drummer Attis Clopton — who Giddens joked was also the most stylish of the bunch — smiled through the whole night. It was clear that the whole group of musicians have a deep love for the work, regardless of which instrument they were picking up.

They swapped banjos for violins for keys, at one point pulling out two accordions at once. Francesco Turrisi, a Sicilian multi-instrumentalist and Giddens’ long-term collaborator and partner, joked about how the audience didn’t know they were getting tickets for the Vancouver Accordion Convention. Their love for the unpopular instrument is characteristic of their shared obsession with the ephemera of music history.

“We’re nerds,” said Turrisi. “I would send her 16th-century Sicilian music and she would send me 19th-century banjo songs.”

They launched into “Brigg’s Forró,” an energetic track that combines forró — Northeastern Brazilian dance music featuring accordion and Afro-Brazilian drums — with bluegrass. Giddens and Forro traded melodies between the accordion and the banjo, gathering a momentum that gave the song’s continental crossover wings.

While their music fuses genres and traditions, Giddens roots it in its transatlantic Black origins. Folk and bluegrass music is often associated with white Southerners, but its roots are in the African American musical traditions.

“Banjo came from the African diaspora in the Caribbean, and it's important to know that,” she said.

Giddens said that coping with the legacy of slavery as the “cornerstone of American culture” is one of her core missions as an artist. She sings traditional folk songs from the perspective of enslaved children separated from their fathers. She also sings, in a similar bluegrass style, about the prison industrial complex.

In “Another Wasted Life” she reflects on the life and death of Kalief Browder, a teenager imprisoned in solitary confinement for three years for the wrongful conviction of stealing a backpack because he couldn’t post bail in 2010.

Her nephew joined her on stage for a rap solo, adding agency and urgency to her lament. As she sang, “It’s just another wasted life,” his words undercut hers in a rising chant: “If we say their names, it's not a wasted life.”