Dom Flemmons is a member of the band Carolina Chocolate Drops, he’s on the phone from Alaska and we’re talking about a tune from South Africa.
Now that’s a pretty global scope for a group that’s made its name largely with music of a rather provincial nature, specifically folk music from the state in which it came together and which lent its name (the northern one), and more specifically from the African-American string band traditions that emerged from the slave communities and thrived in the early years of recording between the two World Wars. The core of the Chocolate Drops’ repertoire since it formed in 2005 has been the rural dance tunes and city “hokum” and blues that for subsequent generations had been relegated to novelty and obscurity status, the realm of obsessive collectors and such.
But the personable group has brought the music to much wider attention with successful albums (the new Leaving Eden is its second for the venerable Nonesuch Records label) and as a popular concert and festival act (it’s playing Friday at UCLA’s Royce Hall after its short Alaska swing). And with that has come a wider perspective, which makes for something of a sub-theme running through the new album, on which producer Buddy Miller fully captured the band’s vibrant sound and lively presence. Three songs in particular carry that thread: The South African tune “Mahalla,” the title track (written by contemporary North Carolina songwriter Laurelyn Dossett looking at the negative impact of globalization on a mill town) and “Country Girl,” a no-place-like home declaration by Flemmons’ CCD co-founder Rhiannon Giddens.
“Rhiannon’s very much proud of being from the South, from North Carolina,” Flemmons says. “That’s a really definitive statement she wanted to make.”
But while “Country Girl” (which makes the connection between African-American storytelling traditions and hip-hop without belaboring the point) is all about Southern pride, “Leaving Eden” brings in notes of concern. Though the song addresses specifics of that region, Flemmons stresses that a similar story is being played out in just about every American town and city. He notes that as the band travels, it’s noticing an distressing phenomena in the wake of the closing of the Borders books and music stores chain -- ironic given the company’s role in putting local entities under, but a sad one for the communities.
“At one time they were everywhere, and all the local shops went under,” he says. “Borders gave us a wide variety, but as it lost its footing and died, now we have gigantic, hulking empty buildings in every city. Sad.”
“Mahalla,” though, is all about the positive side of a global scope, about discovering real connections. Flemmons plays the piece on banjo, but it originated with guitarist Hannes Coetzee from the Karoo region of South Africa. A video from a documentary by David Kramer of Coetzee -- playing the melody line using a spoon held in his teeth -- became a worldwide YouTube sensation. (Watch it here.) But it wasn’t the unusual technique that caught Flemmons so much as the nature of the music itself, and the culture behind it.
“The documentary told of this whole music tradition, a South African string band tradition,” he says. “Seemed the same story, parallel evolution of the music. People who were enslaved and oppressed in South Africa taking the European melodies and songs and adapting them. I heard this and thought, ‘Wow, that’s amazing!’”
The CCD global campaign continues to fly in many directions. It’s got a track on the new Hunger Games companion album and a collaboration on "Pretty Little Girl" with the Chieftains on the Irish band’s new Voice of Ages album, both produced by T Bone Burnett. It also did Bob Dylan’s “Political World,” produced by Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman, for the recent Amnesty International Chimes of Freedom tribute to the icon.
For all that, the band’s core remains such old-timey material as the hokum classic “Boodle-De-Bum-Bum” (adapted and updated a bit by Flemmons), “Red ‘Em, John” (a Georgia Sea Island song learned from an old Alan Lomax field recording) and the sassy Ethel Waters jazz-blues belter “No Man’s Mama” (another Giddens tour-de-force), all highlights of the new album.
“To expand your horizons, hear more stuff, it’s always going to benefit you as a musician and a person,” Flemmons says. “At the same time we definitely want to make a clear statement that we’re not going to be veering off, putting out a full world music album or a hip-hop album. Definitely going to stay grounded in the music we’re known for.”