What color is one of the roots of bluegrass? Old-time string band the Ebony Hillbillies is one of the groups reclaiming this style of music for black musicians and audiences. The band's fiddler and vocalist, Henrique Prince, says string bands were historically "about music that black people played for themselves."
According to Prince, old-time string music was played at black square dances called frolics "during the times of slavery, sort of as a release. It's a lot older than bluegrass or what's called country music," he said.
The Ebony Hillbillies will bring their old-time mix of originals and classics to Spoleto Festival USA tonight at 9 p.m. at the College of Charleston's Cistern Yard.
The band has been through several incarnations since the 1980s, when Prince started playing with Norris Bennett, who sings and plays banjo and mountain dulcimer. The current performers also include Bill Salter on double bass and vocals, Newman Baker on percussion, including washboard and spoons, and Gloria Gassaway on bones and vocals. The band has two CDs, "Sabrina's Holiday" (2004) and "I Thought You Knew" (2005), and another due out in several months.
String bands were the origin of bluegrass, and Prince, who has also played reggae and chamber music during his career, views them as "really the root of all American ensemble music."
Last night at the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, Prince talked about African influence on American string music.
He also gave some history of The Ebony Hillbillies, who are perhaps best known for performing in the New York subway stations, though they have also performed in prestigious venues such as Carnegie Hall. When asked how they got from the subways to the stages, Prince smiled and said, "Practice!"
Part of the band's musical mission is to challenge the stereotype that what is termed hillbilly music comes only from white American culture.
Independent filmmaker John Whitehead agrees. "Country and hillbilly have a lot of African in them," says Whitehead, an Emmy Award winner who is directing a documentary titled "Black String Revival." Among the themes of his film is what he calls the "curious history of the banjo," an instrument of African origins.
"For years we associated African rhythm with the drum," says Whitehead, but some of "the emerging scholarship says that maybe the banjo was more important in contributing poly-rhythms and syncopation, as well as melody." He cites musicians such as the Ebony Hillbillies and the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who will also perform this year at Spoleto, as "redefining categories."
Whitehead was inspired to make his film when he attended a 2005 event called Black Banjo Gathering at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., where the Ebony Hillbillies performed. The gathering, organized by an online community of African-American musicians and string music fans, celebrated its fifth anniversary this year, and, said Whitehead, there were "definitely more African-Americans there this year. You could see it was growing."
As the tradition of black string music is revived, the audience is changing. When the Ebony Hillbillies play in the South, Prince said, "there's still memory of (black people playing string music), but usually it's the older folks. They're pleasantly surprised.