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Singer Rhiannon Giddens becomes new artistic director of Yo-Yo Ma's Silkroad Ensemble


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Judy Woodruff: This summer, Rhiannon Giddens has been on her first tour as artistic director of Silkroad.

The ensemble was founded in 1998 by famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who joined her on stage at the Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts this past week.

Jeffrey Brown spent a day with Giddens and the cross-cultural group recently to see how they aim to make a positive impact across borders and here at home through music.

It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: A Japanese flute, Indian tabla drums, a Celtic harp, a classical cello, and a North Carolina-born singer best known for American roots music; 45-year-old Rhiannon Giddens is now weaving these many sounds, contemporary and ancient, as the new artistic director of Silkroad.

Rhiannon Giddens, Artistic Director, Silkroad: I love getting thrown something that I have never done before, but that I think I have the goods to do, but I have to figure out how to do it. And so I always say yes first and figure it out later, like, you know?


Jeffrey Brown: Giddens is herself a boundless bridger of musical world's and styles. Trained at Oberlin Conservatory of Music as an opera singer, she then learned the fiddle and banjo, and turned to the often-overlooked role of African Americans in Appalachian folk music as co-founder of the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops.

She lives in Ireland with her Italian musical and life partner, multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi, with whom she wrote the music for a ballet. And she co-composed an opera titled "Omar" about a 19th century Senegalese scholar who was sold into slavery in the U.S. Its next stop will be in Los Angeles this coming fall.

Rhiannon Giddens: I'm just always curious, I guess. I get this, ooh, I haven't done that. How do I do it, you know? And then who can I work with to do it? That's always my next question is, who do I get to work with? Like, I love collaborating and I love finding out new things.

Jeffrey Brown: Starting with a tour called Phoenix Rising here at Wolf Trap outside Washington, D.C., she's now working with the famed Grammy-winning International Collective.

Originally founded to highlight the music and culture of the historic Silkroad, the trade routes connecting the far east and China with the Middle East and Europe, the group has put out 10 albums and performed around the world. Giddens wants to continue to widen the lens to this country.

Rhiannon Giddens: When you look at the globalness of where the Silkroad starts, you can actually look at the United States as just the next stop on the Silkroad, when you consider all the folks from China that ended up on the West Coast building the railroad, the gold rush and, of course, all the other immigration patterns there were.

And one of the things that I felt really attracted to was the idea of telling Silkroad's story through America.

Jeffrey Brown: The Silkroad sort of expands the map, in a sense.

Rhiannon Giddens: Definitely. It expands the map in a way that I feel like is where I have been needing to go. And I just realized that actually my story is just part of a larger story.

Jeffrey Brown: Her favorite example, one of her own instruments, the banjo.

Rhiannon Giddens: The banjo is an African American instrument. A lot of people say it's invented in Africa. It was invented in the Caribbean, but it is connected to West African instruments, which are themselves lute instruments, which were brought over by Arabic traders, which are connected to the larger instrument family of ouds and Renaissance lutes and guitars and all of this kind of stuff.

And you realize, when you keep going back and it goes to the Middle East, then it goes further back to China, and you go, here...

Jeffrey Brown: Central Asia to China.

Rhiannon Giddens: Yes, exactly. And it's a very, very solid through line.

Jeffrey Brown: The Phoenix Rising tour features new works composed by Silkroad musicians, Indian tabla player Sandeep Das, who's been with the ensemble from the beginning, and newer to the group, Scottish harpist Maeve Gilchrist, both melding their original traditions into the larger framework.

Sandeep Das, Musician: When I joined this ensemble, I was just an Indian musician, very proud of my cultural and historical heritage. But I very happily say that I lost my identity in a beautiful way, only to realize that nothing I thought as only mine is actually only mine. It's something that I shared with everybody else.

Maeve Gilchrist, Musician: In Ireland and Scotland, there is a thing called a thin place. And a thin place is neither heaven nor earth. It's the in-between areas. And it feels like the musical journey of Silkroad is this parallel where we're trying to create in this thin place. We're trying to find the intersections of all of our different cultures.

Jeffrey Brown: In recent concerts, Giddens highlights the American blues tradition directly. Her most ambitious plan for tying the Silkroad to this country is called the American Railroad, a multiyear, multiplatform project, music, a documentary, books and more, that will explore the impact of African Americans, Chinese, Irish, Mexican, and indigenous communities on and from the creation of the Transcontinental Railroad.

Rhiannon Giddens: Ultimately, the idea is that of you never meet a stranger.

The metaphor of the Silkroad is, you have a path. And on this path, you change and you are changed.

Jeffrey Brown: Of course, Giddens knows she steps into this role at a time of extreme divisions in the country. But she's determined to push forward with Silkroad and other new roles she's taking on, including writing a musical drama, hosting a PBS series called "My Music" and a children's book based on a song she wrote during the pandemic, due out this fall.

Rhiannon Giddens: It's an awful time. But, like, what other time is art needed in but the awful times?


Rhiannon Giddens: I am a bit of a pessimist, but, like, the right kind of pessimism can kind of keep you going. It's kind of like, yes, it's all going to hell in a handbasket. Therefore, we need to make every day the best day that we can make. And we need to tell these stories now.

Jeffrey Brown: In what can feel the worst of times, then the best sounds of all worlds.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in New York.

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