ARTICLE: Rhiannon Giddens soars past Pulitzer win. ‘She is one of the greatest artists in the world,’ says Pat Metheny
November 5, 2023
The 2022 Pulitzer Prize-winning composer shines whether performing country music or opera, blues or gospel, torch songs or soul. She performs Friday at the Balboa Theater with the Silkroad Ensemble, which she now leads.
Rhiannon Giddens sounded understandably giddy the morning after receiving her 2022 Pulitzer Prize for music in New York two weeks ago.
But the source of her giddiness wasn’t this banjo-playing singer and composer’s Pulitzer win, as thrilled as she is about being honored for her first opera, “Omar.” Rather, it was learning that her praises had recently been highly sung in Union-Tribune interviews by two acclaimed admirers of Giddens’ exceptional vocal depth and dizzying creative range.
“She is one of the greatest artists of any kind in the world right now,” said guitar legend Pat Metheny, a 20-time Grammy Award-winner.
“Rhiannon is amazing and brilliant. I think she’s an American treasure,” said pianist and composer Billy Childs, a five-time Grammy-winner and the former president of Chamber Music America.
Told of their heady compliments, Giddens was delighted, stunned and, well, giddy.
“I’m kind of speechless,” she said. “I didn’t think Pat and Billy knew I was alive, let alone had thoughts about what I do. They are both incredible artists and those are very kind things for them to say.”
A triple-Grammy-winner and an Oberlin Conservatory 2000 voice studies graduate, Giddens is no stranger to accolades.
A Steve Martin prize-winner
In 2016, she was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame as a member of the vintage-music-championing Carolina Chocolate Drops, a string and vocal group. The same year saw her win the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass.
In 2017, Giddens became a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, which is widely known as the Genius Grant. She has won multiple Living Blues Awards, an International Folk Music Award and a Society of Composers & Lyricists Award.
In 2019, she was featured in Ken Burns’ 16-hour, eight-part PBS TV documentary “Country Music,” during which she explored the African roots of the banjo. In 2020, she succeeded famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma as the artistic director of the borders- and genre-blurring Silkroad Ensemble.
This fall’s national “American Railroad” tour by the 13-piece multinational ensemble — whose lineup features Carlsbad-based pipa master Wu Man — includes a Friday concert at San Diego’s Balboa Theater.
“After I first recorded with Silkroad (in 2016), I had a good long chat with Yo-Yo and he blew me away,” Giddens recalled.
“Here’s somebody who is so famous and renowned, and he is so focused on world events, culture, and on: ‘How do we make things better and move the needle?’ It was illuminating to see somebody of his stature pondering and addressing these things, as well as making music. That really made a big impression on me.”
Pulitzer and ‘Porgy & Bess’
The past two years have been no less memorable for Giddens, who shares Ma’s socially conscious approach to life and art.
In 2022, she starred in Greensboro Opera’s production of “Porgy and Bess” in her North Carolina hometown. In June, she became the first banjo-playing opera and Americana-music singer in the Ojai Festival’s 76-year-history to serve as its music director.
Her Ojai Festival showcase came just one month after Giddens won the Pulitzer in May for “Omar,” her debut opera. Co-written with “Get Out” film composer Michael Abels, “Omar” was inspired by the 1831 autobiography of Omar ibn Said, a Muslim scholar from Senegal, who was taken to Charleston, S.C., after being enslaved in 1807.
Giddens, 46, is the daughter of an African American and American Indian mother and a European American father. She wrote the music and libretto for “Omar” alone on her banjo. Abels then orchestrated the score by Giddens, whose opera deftly draws from gospel, blues, spirituals, ragtime, Senegalese music, opera traditions and more.
“Rhiannon has such a unique perspective on things and an intense musicality that sits at the base of everything she does,” said guitarist and fan Metheny.
“The range of possibilities in music she has available to her are kind of unlimited. And at the same time, she balances that potential with a deep understanding of history — musical and otherwise. She is so special, and I am always looking to see what she will do next.”
Silkroad co-founding member Wu Man, a master of the lute-like Chinese string instrument the pipa, is also an ardent admirer of Giddens. Wu Man first heard her perform with the Carolina Chocolate Drops at the 2015 Big Ears Festival in Tennessee, one year before Giddens debuted with Silkroad Ensemble.
“I was totally blown away,” Wu Man recalled.
“I was like: ‘Wow! What a great musician and great artist she is!’ With Silkroad, she always has very creative ideas. The whole world is different now than when Yo-Yo started Silkroad Ensemble 25 years ago. And when Rhiannon came in, I think it was the right time for us to try out new ideas.”
Music a family affair
“Omar” had its live debut at the 2022 Spoleto Festival, where it earned rave reviews. So did subsequent productions by Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Francisco Opera, Boston Lyric Opera and Los Angeles Opera. The Pulitzer win is an extraordinary achievement for a first-time opera composer.
“I’m very grateful for the accolades, but mostly I have gratitude for the opportunity to do what I’m doing,” Giddens said from New York, the day after the Pulitzer ceremony at Columbia University.
“Last night was amazing — I’d never been to Columbia before — and it was very inspiring to learn more about all the other winners. I mean, gosh! I am in pretty amazing company, so it was very humbling.
“I’ve been so single-mindedly focused on my work that when people ask me how it feels (to be honored), I’m like: ‘I don’t know! I’ve got this record to work on, this next tour to do, this new project to work on…’ I’ve been blessed to be able to dip my toes in a lot of things, and that’s what I love — getting to do all this stuff!”
“Even with my crocheting, which is something I’m obsessed with, there’s so much I’ve been blessed with. I have had so many incredible opportunities come my way.”
Giddens lives in Ireland with her son, daughter and jazz-and-beyond accordionist Francesco Turrisi, her music and life partner. The couple has made two splendid albums together, including 2021’s “They’re Calling Me Home,” which offers a striking mix of country, blues, gospel, Celtic, classical and Italian folk music.
Giddens’ fifth and most recent solo album, “You’re The One,” came out earlier this year. It is her first to exclusively feature songs she wrote or co-wrote. Her debut album, 2015’s “Tomorrow Is My Turn,” features Giddens’ strikingly original versions of songs first recorded by Nina Simone, Dolly Parton, Elizabeth Cotton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Geeshie Wiley.
Discussing “Tomorrow Is My Turn” in a 2015 Union-Tribune interview, Giddens said: “At this point in my life, it’s not about me. It’s about what I can do to highlight great artists. That’s my job. That’s what I can do and why I was put on earth.”
What does she see her job as today, eight years later?
“What I’m doing now is related to what I was doing then,” Giddens replied. “At that point in my life, I was highlighting these artists that inspired me. My songwriting is inspired by my idols — Nina Simone, Dolly Parton, Aretha Franklin. The songs I do, whether written by someone else or by me, have always been about the stories of people. And I’m still interested in highlighting the forgotten stories of American music and culture.
“That’s been my focus for a long time. How do we address these songs and realities of the past by addressing today? Like, the banjo being presented as something (created) by White Appalachian people? They played it, certainly, but it is an instrument that came from African culture. I want people to know that Black people invented the banjo and we are a vital part of its history.”
Offering illumination through music is exactly what Giddens is now doing with Silkroad Ensemble’s “American Railroad” tour.
Three years in the making, it was conceived as a vehicle to spotlight the largely untold stories of the people whose back-breaking labor made the Transcontinental Railroad a reality in the 1800s. Those workers were indigenous, African American, Irish, Chinese, Japanese or came from other countries.
A multimedia work built on a diverse musical foundation, it features three newly commissioned works by Cécile McLorin Salvant, Suzanne Kite and Silkroad co-founder Wu Man. These will be performed alongside period songs with reimagined arrangements by Giddens and two other Silkroad artists — Japanese percussionist Haruka Fujii and Celtic harpist Maeve Gilchrist.
“Because of the makeup of the people who built the railroad in America and the people in Silkroad, I thought this was a way to bring Silkroad’s story to America. It’s a story that will be inspiring and allow the ensemble members to have a really wide canvas to create something that is musically and socially significant.”
Giddens’ previous research on music of the United States in the 18th century gave her a head start when she initiated the “American Railroad” project. She then took a deeper dive.
“Obviously, I got some books and did more research,” she said. “The important thing is that everybody in Silkroad had access to that, so it quickly became a group project. Then, we worked with historians — and members of the ensemble came back with pieces of music they had written.
“It’s been exciting to see that develop and for people in the ensemble to connect to the story, even if they are of a different ethnicity than the folks we reference in ‘American Railroad.’ Our tabla player, Sandeep Das, is from India. And he said: ‘This is exactly the same story as what happened in India when the English (colonialists) came in and built a railroad across India, using India laborers.’ These same kinds of things have happened all over the world.”
‘Unique and important’
The inspiration for “American Railroad” also resonates for Silkroad co-founding member Wu Man, whose mastery of the lute-like pipa has earned her international acclaim. Ditto her ability to shine in any stylistic setting, from age-old Chinese folk traditions to the most cutting-edge contemporary music and many points in between.
On Sept. 29, Wu Man was honored by the National Endowment for the Arts as a 2023 National Heritage Fellow, the United States’ highest honor in folk and traditional arts. In March, she was recognized as one of the 2023 Asia Arts Game Changers by the Asia Society at a ceremony in New York City.
For Silkroad’s ongoing “American Railroad” tour, Wu Man composed a new piece that she entitled “Time Elapse.” It features instruments from China, India and Japan in a work that was partly inspired by the tonal colors one might hear in a Beijing Opera performance.
The vocal parts will feature Giddens singing in Chinese, a language she has has learned to sing — phonetically — after being tutored by Wu Man. “Time Elapse” also includes a pipa and banjo duet by Giddens and Wu Man, who laughingly describes the pipa as a “Chinese banjo.”
“Each instrument in ‘Time Elapse’ represents a specific character,” Wu Man noted. “I want to tell the story more from the perspective of the (railroad) workers’ wives and moms because they separated the moms, wives and kids, who were not allowed into the U.S.”
Wu Man’s research before and while writing “Time Elapse” tok her from coast to coast. It included a trip to the Sacramento Railroad Museum, followed by visits to Chinese Historical Centers in San Francisco and New York City.
“It’s called ‘Time Elapse’ because it (reflects) part of American Culture and also an immigrants history,” she explained.
“This project is unique and important to me because there are a lot of untold stories. A lot of early Chinese immigrants were involved in the building of the Transcontinental Railroad.
“So, in some ways this is a time already passed. But we need to remember that time. It’s important for my generation and the next generation of Chinese immigrants to understand where we came from and how we gathered together to basically help build his country.”
Giddens also has a ballet score to her credit and two children’s books, “Build a House” and “We Could Fly.” She is the host of “Banjo,” a 10-part educational series for the streaming service Wondrium.
Her future goals include writing a musical and learning to play the accordion. She is also mulling ideas for her next opera and for her first jazz album, which would likely feature bass great Christian McBride, one of her periodic musical partners.
“It never stops!” Giddens said with a chuckle.
She roared with laughter when asked if she is a workaholic.
“All of my family, my friends and my partner would say: ‘Yes’!” Giddens replied, laughing again.
And what does she say?
“I’d say: ‘Yeah’,” she acknowledged.
“People are always asking me: ‘How do you do the things you do?’ Well, I don’t do anything else! I don’t really know how to stop, so — in the next year — I need to figure out how to slow down. Because at some point, your body will stop you, or you’ll lose a relationship, or screw up a big gig.
“One of those things will happen. I had to cancel some shows because my voice wore out and I’m getting older. I started working when I was 15 and haven’t stopped yet. That’s not a virtue. I need to figure out how to slow down.”
She laughed again.
“I’d like to accomplish as much as I can,” Giddens said. “And, one day, Beyoncé will fall in love with the banjo — and my work will be done!”
La Jolla Music Society Presents Rhiannon Giddens and Silkroad Ensemble, featuring Wu Man
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Balboa Theater, 868 Fourth Avenue., Gaslamp Quarter