Rhiannon Giddens & Francesco Turrisi: Challenging perceptions of home and belonging | Songlines
Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Rhiannon Giddens & Francesco Turrisi: Challenging perceptions of home and belonging

By Nigel Williamson

Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi revisit classic folk songs on their latest release. The pair talk about the continuing relevance of folk music, the concept of home and life during lockdown

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Francesco Turrisi & Rhiannon Giddens © Ebru Yildiz

The reason Rhiannon Giddens enjoys singing ancient folk songs is that they carry within them eternal truths. “They connect us to the grand scheme of humanity and there’s comfort in that,” she tells me via a Zoom call from her home in Ireland where she has spent lockdown with her partner Francesco Turrisi.

During their enforced inactivity over the last year due to the pandemic, the couple used the time to record They’re Calling Me Home, which is an exquisite collection of songs that includes some of the most familiar standards in the folk canon, among them ‘Amazing Grace’, ‘I Shall Not Be Moved’ and ‘O Death’, as well as two tunes from Turrisi’s Italian heritage.

It seems entirely natural that, at a time of great peril, Giddens and Turrisi should lower their bucket into the timeless well of folk music and draw up emotions and expressions that chime so deeply with our own troubled times. “That’s totally what folk music is for and what it does,” Giddens says. “That’s why we were attracted to these songs. It’s salutary to realise that what we’re going through is no different from what generations have been going through over the ages. It’s tough now, but these songs are a reminder that people in the past had to go through much harder times with less resources than we have. It’s a question of how do we tap into the resilience that gets people through and these songs represent that.”

There’s a double meaning to the album’s title, which is taken from the song ‘Calling Me Home’ by the bluegrass folk singer Alice Gerrard, reflecting the metaphorical ‘call home’ of death and life passing, which has been a tragic reality for so many during the COVID-19 crisis. But it also refers to the pain of homesickness and exile.

Living in Ireland means both Giddens and Turrisi are migrants. They therefore have several iterations of home. “It’s the destiny of the migrant that in Italy they call me Irish and in Ireland they call me Italian, so home isn’t a monolithic concept,” Turrisi says. “In a way it’s good because you take what you want or need from both. But it’s also weird because sometimes you feel like you don’t belong anywhere.”

Being locked down also set Giddens thinking about different definitions of home and informed the choice of songs on the album. “Whenever I go back to America it always feels like coming home, even if it’s just for a vacation. We’re both ex-pats and even though we have our home in Ireland, for the past year we couldn’t go back to our original homes to see our families – and who knows how long it’s going to be. I was thinking about that and people all over the world who are trapped and can’t get back home.”

Born in Turin, Turrisi grew up in Sicily before moving to Holland in 1997 when he was 20 to study jazz and early music at the Royal Conservatoire in the Hague. He moved to Ireland in 2006 after marrying an Irish woman and although the relationship did not last he chose to stay. A musical polymath and a multi-instrumentalist on piano, accordion, harpsichord, organ, lute, cello and frame drums, Turrisi has recorded several albums under his own name and has worked with jazz ensembles, Irish traditional sean nós singers, Italian tarantella performers, toured with Bobby McFerrin, interpreted the music of Steve Reich with Bang on a Can and accompanied musicians from the flamenco star Pepe Habichuela to Greece’s very wonderful Savina Yannatou.

Turrisi began working with Giddens in 2018, after she had also made her home in Ireland. “I married an Irish guy and we had kids,” she explains. “We were living in the US but we decided to move the kids to Ireland. We split up, but the kids are here and when I started being together with Francesco, it seemed that my entire life was here.”

Her ‘original’ home was North Carolina, but she feels as if she has lived all her life between two different worlds. “Mixed race, parents divorced when I was one. I was going back and forth between a white family and a black family, the country and the city from the beginning,” she says. “I never had a place I was in for a long time. To white people I was black; to black people I was ‘what are you?’. I never felt I fitted anywhere, so I found a musical home. That was my identity.”

Classically trained as an opera singer, she made her mark with playing old-time American folk music, banjo tunes and minstrel songs with the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops. Since then she’s released a series of inspired solo albums and has participated in an eclectic range of collaborations and other projects, from writing ballet scores and an opera to recording the Dylan-inspired The New Basement Tapes with Elvis Costello and Marcus Mumford and working with the Silkroad Ensemble (of which more later).

Rhiannon Giddens & Francesco Turrisi (© Ebru Yildiz)

It has made Giddens a unique figure in both black music and in American folk music, recognised in 2017 when she was the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, popularly known as ‘the Genius Grant.’ You can trace her lineage back to black female folk and blues singers such as Elizabeth Cotten and Odetta, but neither of them had the inclination or opportunity to delve as deeply into the music’s patrimony as Giddens has done. She derives inspiration from the likes of Nina Simone and Mavis Staples, but they’re not quite accurate as analogues either. The closest, perhaps, is Taj Mahal, whose visionary concept of African-American roots music and its global links over his 50-year career has been similarly expansive and inquisitive.

Both admit that there have been some benefits from lockdown and staying in one place. “Not travelling has been huge. I didn’t know what it was like not to have jet lag,” Giddens concedes. “I’d come in, pick up the kids, spend some time with them and then fly again. I now know what it’s like not to be exhausted all the time.” Although Turrisi says they are both missing the energy of live performance, he concurs that there have been advantages. “This is the longest I have ever been in the same place since I was in college,” he says. “At first I found it charming – seeing my daughter and having time to practice and listen to music. We’ve learned a lot from being at home. But we’re getting tired of it now after a year. The ideal would be somewhere in between.”

However, lockdown has afforded time for other projects. “I didn’t really know how to stop and being stationary actually meant some things could happen that never would have happened otherwise,” Giddens explains. “We’ve tried to keep our creative juices flowing.” She then reels off a giddying list of activity that includes a reading for an off-Broadway musical, a book she’s been contracted to write, lectures, keynote speeches, live streams and even acting coaching.

Plus, of course, They’re Calling Me Home, recorded over six days at a small studio on a working farm outside of Dublin, with their banjos, accordions, frame drums, violas and cellos joined at key moments by Congolese guitarist Niwel Tsumbu and Irish traditional musician Emer Mayock on flute, whistle and pipes.

There’s an emotional intensity that means even the most familiar songs on the album sound as if you’re hearing them for the first time. “We tried to present them in a way that turns them on their head a little bit, to find a new way to appreciate an old tune. If we can’t do that, then I don’t want to put it on a record,” Giddens says.

There has also been time to explore each other’s musical hinterlands. “Francesco introduced me to a whole other world,” she enthuses. “Our journeys are similar in a lot of ways and so by the time we got together and crossed our cultures there was a lot of scope.”

One project they have started to explore is teasing out the links between Giddens’ African-American heritage, Turrisi’s Italian background and the culture of their current home in Ireland. “I’m fascinated with what happened when the Irish and the Italians got to America and how they interacted with black populations there. The more we can find these parallels of what oppression does and how that brings people together, the better,” Giddens asserts. “There’s a lot there to be dug into and it’s a story that needs to be told.”

Rhiannon Giddens & Francesco Turrisi (© Karen Cox)

Then there’s the Silkroad Ensemble, the global project founded more than 20 years ago by cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Giddens worked with them on the Grammy-winning 2016 album Sing Me Home. When she was invited to a meeting shortly before lockdown, she thought it was to seek her participation in another project. Instead, to her surprise, she was asked to become its artistic director.

“She lives Silkroad’s values, at once rooted in history and its many musics, and as an advocate for the contemporary voices that can move us to work together for a better world,” Ma said when Giddens’ appointment was announced.

She had little hesitation in accepting the invitation. “I was feeling I was burning myself out and wondering if there was a way I could be part of a wider platform. Then I got the Silkroad call,” Giddens says. “They have resources and this incredible ensemble and I thought maybe I can bring my perspective. Working with Francesco gave me the confidence to do it because he’s exposed me so much to the music of the rest of the world. It felt like a good fit.”

Much of her time in lockdown has been spent planning Silkroad’s future programme, including a series of ‘Phoenix’ concerts “grieving the losses of the pandemic and using the image of the phoenix rising from the ashes as we come out of this place we’ve all been in for so long.” There’s also a project using the image of how the railroad opened up the US in the 19th century to explore the cultural connections between the Chinese, Irish, African-American and immigrant European workers who built it. “I’m pushing the idea of reconnecting America to the music of the world because the music of the world is in American music. There’s a direct line,” Giddens says.

It will be fascinating to see where Silkroad and Giddens travel together for it does seem like a perfect fit. “Everything I’ve done has been about finding the similarities in the way we reflect our values as human beings,” she says. “Folk music all over the world talks about the same stuff but in different ways. It’s about shining a light on the places where we can come together and rejecting the notion that we’re inherently different.” 

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