In a video that went viral at some point over the past few years, a gene-testing company gathered up a bunch of folks who were so very, very proud of their various heritages — some to the point of outright hostility to other races and ethnicities. When the tests came back to show that their DNA wasn’t exactly what they had presumed it to be, many of them cried, confronted by the existence of human migration and miscegenation across continents and centuries which had “sullied” their perceived ancestral purity.
Where humans travel, so go their customs and cultures, including music. Nothing is pure. Not this far into an ever-evolving world. And, because no thing is just one thing, all things share some things. That is the idea, on both the personal and musical fronts, at the heart of there is no Other, the new album by Rhiannon Giddens in partnership with Francesco Turrisi.
As students of music, history, and musical history, the two have created a glorious confluence of African, Arabic, and European cultures presented by an American roots artist and an Italian multi-instrumentalist armed with banjos, violin, accordion, frame drum, tamburello, lute, and other globe-spanning instruments. The result exists completely outside of time and place yet is still very much of the here and now.
In song after song, Giddens allows listeners to feel the weight of generations in her voice. With the opening track, “Ten Thousand Voices,” she seems to summon all of the stories and souls to pour right through her. She is but the vessel and the vehicle for both first takes on original compositions and new spins on old tunes, including Ola Belle Reed’s “I’m Gonna Write Me a Letter” and Oscar Brown, Jr’s “Brown Baby,” as well as various other traditionals. Three cuts in, “Wayfaring Stranger” brings all it has to bear in a performance that must be experienced, as any words used to describe it will fall embarrassingly short.
Produced by Joe Henry and recorded in Dublin, Ireland, there is no Other puts the connectedness of our world into stark relief and the hypocrisy of all bigotry to great shame. Once again, Rhiannon Giddens has shown what it means to be an artist of truly great import, using her platform to not just entertain, but to amplify and to educate.