“Tradition is a guide, not a jailer. We play in an older tradition but we are modern musicians.” Nowhere is this quote from Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Justin Robinson more apparent than on the opening track of this EP: a beatboxed recreation of Sam Morgan Jazz Band’s 1927 tune “Short Dress Gal”. Like the original, the 2010 version comes across as a simple jam session – relaxed in spirit in but not in practice. Add to the original both some vocal percussion and a verse in the modern rhyme practice known as hip-hop, then replace the ‘20s horns with a two-band string section, and you’ve got something true.
Both the Carolina Chocolate Drops and the Luminescent Orchestrii are bands you wouldn’t necessarily expect to be on the upswing in 2010 America, but they’ve each found success through calling on tradition. CCD is mostly inspired by African musicians who brought their music to America on slave ships, the tradition carried on today by many black string bands. This particular group came together partially, as so many modern pairings tend to do these days, on the internet: a Yahoo group called Black Banjo: Then and Now. Luminescent Orchestrii, of their many influences, calls most upon their love of Balkan and Gypsy melodies. Though these would suggest polar opposites, the groups are similar in purity of form and intention. The bands’ joint love of many modern sounds, as well, is probably what makes the EP such a success.
“Short Dress Gal” is followed by the Lumii tune “Escoutas (Diga Diga Diga)”, which is quite obviously the product of differing cultures. It is carried by five vocal parts (including beatbox), three fiddles, an upright bass, a banjo, a guitar, a number of handclaps, and traditional lyrics. CCD’s cover of Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style”—led by Rhiannon Giddens’ vocals and fiddle and given rhythm by Adam Matta’s beatbox and Dom Flemmons’ four-string banjo—is right in line with the rest of the EP, proving an ability to revive what was forgotten years ago.
“Knockin’”, the Lumii original and closing track on the project, could have been conceived under any number of circumstances – in a late night kitchen under lamplight, in a dark saloon, or on a crowded street corner. The slow rhythm provided by Sxip Shirey’s guitar, Benjy Fox Rosen’s bass, and Matta’s beatbox creeps spidery through your head as Giddens’ smooth voice leads the three-part harmony (along with Rima Fand and Sarah Alden) and fiddled melody.
The four tracks presented here are not enough, and that is the single downfall of this EP: you are left only wanting more. But perhaps that’s what they were going for; most artists probably hope for that reaction. The collaboration as recorded in two separate studios, in two separate states, worked so well that you can hardly hear an unnatural note or great divide between the two groups. Individually, each track has its own character, but none of the four could have been given this energy by any other combination of musicians.