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In the Bay Area, November Belongs to Rhiannon Giddens

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a woman with light brown skin and dark brown hair poses in a blue and orange dress against a blue backdrop
The musician Rhiannon Giddens has two major works that explore the contributions of immigrants, ‘Omar’ and ‘American Railroad,’ headed to the Bay Area this November. (Ebru Yildiz)

Rhiannon Giddens has long focused on stories neglected, ignored and devalued in American culture. But the past year has made the musician’s gift for those narratives abundantly clear, and to a powerful effect: What began as a campaign to rewrite the narrative of American roots music in her longtime band, the Grammy Award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, has expanded by leaps and bounds, encompassing just about every influx of people that have shaped the so-called “manifest destiny” of the United States.

It’s been an extraordinary journey for the acclaimed singer, fiddler, banjo player and composer. And many of its paths converge this month in the Bay Area, starting at the San Francisco Opera, which presents Giddens’ 2023 Pulitzer Prize-winning Omar over six performances Nov. 5–22. Originally co-produced by Carolina Performing Arts at the University of North Carolina and Spoleto Festival USA, where the opera premiered last year, Omar was inspired by the singular 1831 autobiography A Muslim American Slave: The Life of Omar Ibn Said.

Raised in a West African Islamic state in what is now Senegal, kidnapped and sold into servitude in South Carolina, Ibn Said wrote about his experience in Arabic, a work that languished in obscurity until the University of Wisconsin Press published Ala Alryyes’ English translation in 2011. San Francisco Opera and six other companies commissioned the two-act opera, which Giddens co-composed with Michael Abels (she also wrote the libretto). Unfamiliar with Ibn Said’s saga before she received the commission, Giddens plunged into an assignment that took her far from her comfort zone.

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“I was immediately taken with his story and furious that I’d never heard it before,” says Giddens, 46, on a recent video call. “Michael Ables was the perfect collaborator to tell Omar’s story. I know what I can do and what I can’t do, and there were a lot of leaps of imagination. The biography is very short. Omar is telling a lot, but you have to be open to different ways of storytelling. He finds himself in a completely alien world, and is desperately trying to maintain ties to African Muslim identity.”

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Omar is directed by Kaneza Schaal and stars New Orleans tenor Jamez McCorkle, who was hailed as the discovery of 2022 Spoleto Festival USA for creating the titular role (“a miraculous voice with abundant body but no apparent weight,” wrote Opera News).

a group of people on stage in blue light during an opera
Jamez McCorkle stars as the titular character in Rhiannon Giddens’ ‘Omar,’ which opens at San Francisco Opera Nov. 5 (Cory Weaver/LA Opera)

But the opera is just one of Giddens’ spectacular projects that’s manifesting around the region. She’s also leading the Silkroad Ensemble’s American Railroad production, a multimedia musical excavation revealing the peoples who built the transcontinental railroad.

Performing Nov. 15 at Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall, Nov. 16 at UC Davis’s Mondavi Center, Nov. 17 at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall, and Nov. 18 at  Sonoma State’s Green Music Center, American Railroad builds on the concept and cast first assembled a quarter-century ago by cellist Yo-Yo Ma to explore the East-meets-West cultural confluence conveyed over the course of a millennium by the Silk Road trading route.

Under Giddens’ artistic direction, the project trained its focus on the music of the laborers left out of Andrew J. Russell’s iconic 1869 photo “East and West Shaking Hands at Laying of Last Rail” at Promontory Summit, Utah.

“That was one inspiration, who’s not in the photo,” Giddens says. “How do we refocus that story? Many people know about the Chinese contributions, but if you’re talking about the Eastern part, you’re talking about Irish people, and you’re talking about the transition from slavery into convict labor. The other missing piece is Indigenous people.”

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With nine Silkroad Ensemble musicians and an array of special guests, the program encompasses Native American and African American music and reimagined traditional songs drawing from Irish, Chinese, Japanese and other immigrant cultures. Running through American Railroad is Giddens’ arrangement of the bluegrass standard “Swannanoa Tunnel” (also known as “Asheville Junction” and “Swannanoa Town”), a song with largely forgotten origins as a 19th century African-American work song.

The production doesn’t unfold as a linear narrative so much as gradually resolve into a fine-grained soundscape of a protean nation, one very much in the initial phase of coalescing.

“We’re going to start here and end up there, so there’s a narrative,” Giddens said. “But everybody took the assignment in different ways, some more from direct cultural inspiration, and some from the locomotive engine and the movement of the train, or the sound of the workers. So there are vocal pieces, instrumental pieces, improvised pieces, and this thread coming back to ‘Swannanoa Tunnel’ in different guises. The audience is on a ride with us.”

It’s a ride that boasts an extravagant collection of talent. The cast includes Sandeep Das on tabla, Karen Ouzounian on cello and vocals, Kaoru Watanabe on Japanese flutes and percussion, East Bay percussionist Haruka Fujii and Mazz Swift on violin and vocals. (Swift is then back in town Dec. 8–9 to curate San Francisco Symphony’s latest Soundbox production.) There are also a number of featured guests, such as Francesco Turrisi on frame drums and accordion and Pura Fé Crescioni on lap-steel guitar and voice.

an ensemble of musicians performs on stage in front of a purple curtain
Cal Performances will present Silkroad Ensemble with Rhiannon Giddens on Nov. 17 at Zellerbach Hall. (Adam Gurczak)

Giddens presides over the disparate ensemble on banjo and vocals, though she credits Wu Man, a master of the lute-like traditional Chinese pipa, with providing much of the glue that holds all the elements together.

A founding member of the Silkroad Ensemble well known to Bay Area audiences via her deep connection to Kronos Quartet, Wu says that Giddens came on board in 2020, “just at the right time.”

“She’s an amazing artist and very easy to work with, and when she joined we had many different ideas about how to bring the group forward,” Wu says. “It’s a different time than when we started 25 years ago. American Railroad is more based in American roots and traditions, reaching out to these different countries, but still rooted in the Silk Road history and instruments from Central Asia. But now we moved to America, the American Silk Road.”

Given Giddens’ last 18 months, the work reads as an expansion on a theme. Rooted in the verdant soil of her native North Carolina, Giddens launched her first mission with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, revealing the pervasive Black contributions to American old-time and string band music. The group, which first formed in 2005, certainly wasn’t the first to make the case — Taj Mahal was connecting the old-time and folk music dots to Piedmont blues, spirituals and work songs more than five decades ago. But with Giddens’ quietly charismatic presence out front, the Chocolate Drops helped widen conversations about the origins of American roots music.

With American Railroad, Giddens opens a portal big enough to drive a train through — in part because the concerts are one component of a much larger undertaking. As the project continues to roll, plans include an album and a documentary series, site-specific visual installations and curricular materials for use by educators and the public.

That’s a heaping plate for any one artist. But Giddens is also capping off her 2023 by publishing her second children’s book, following up on last year’s Build a House. Available on Nov. 7, We Could Fly is a collaboration with acclaimed graphic artist Briana Mukodiri Uchendu, based on a song of the same title that Giddens wrote with Dirk Powell. It’s yet another creative alliance for a musician who has mastered the art of collaboration.

“You send them your words, and they come up with what they see needs to happen,” Giddens says. “It really is a partnership. She’s an artist, I’m an artist, and the two art forms come together to make something new.”

‘Omar’ runs for six performances Nov. 5–22 at the San Francisco Opera; details here

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‘American Railroad’ will be performed Nov. 15 at Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall (details here); Nov. 16 at UC Davis’s Mondavi Center (details here); Nov. 17 at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall (details here); and Nov. 18 at  Sonoma State University’s Green Music Center (details here).

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