Across the centuries: Ali, Giddens, Turrisi make musical, cultural connections

September 26, 2018

Rhiannon Giddens stressed two points in her visit to campus Sept. 10:

  • “Globalization is not a modern concept.”
  • “Something always came before.”

The Grammy recipient and MacArthur Fellow joined multi-instrumentalist Francensco Turrisi and historian Dr. Omar Ali in the discussion “Bilal’s Songs: Mixing and Re-Mixing the African Diaspora and Islamic World” in UNCG’s EUC Auditorium Sept. 10.

The genesis of the evening’s panel was a series of conversations they had been having about the African Diaspora, history of Islam and intersections of the two.

Ali, in tracing some of the history to start the evening and give context for the audience, noted that fifteen to twenty percent of enslaved Africans taken to the Americas were Muslim. He showed maps of the African continent, the Middle East and east Asia, explaining history and making connections.

He also explained that several notable slave revolts in the Americas were led by Muslims.

Francisco Turrisi is a “musical alchemist,” Ali said. Turrisi loves the music of the southern Mediterranean. He explained that Sicily, where his mother was born, had once had a strong Islamic musical and cultural influence.

He spoke a good bit about international variations of what people in the United States call a tambourine – and the rich differences in how these instruments are played in various countries. And he spoke about influences and connections he has experienced.

The native of Italy recalled an epiphany. “I could hear in (American) old-time string band what I hear in jazz.” It led him to check out the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

He recalled the first time Giddens, a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, played him some instrumental tunes. “I swear I could hear rock and roll,” though they were in fact 1850s era minstrel tunes.

The EUC event was an evening of making connections and seeing influences, musically, culinary and linguistically.

Both Giddens and Turrisi had been performers at the N.C. Folk Festival, which ended the day before.

Giddens, who studied as a Music graduate student at UNCG, and Ali both spoke about Omar ibn Said, a Muslim enslaved in the Carolinas in the 19th century. Ali noted that a mosque is named for him.

Giddens told the audience she has been working on a project about Omar ibn Said. She noted the North Carolinian wrote his autobiography in Arabic.

The evening concluded with a very Turkish sounding song, her banjo sounding similar to an oud and his playing his tamburello with Arabic/Muslim influence.

Afterward, in an email interview, Ali, who is dean of the Lloyd International Honors College and professor of comparative African diaspora history, reflected on the value of having history come alive through live musical performance. “There’s nothing quite like experiencing the rhythms and melodies of people and places in ‘the past’ made meaningful in ‘the present.’ Rhiannon and Francesco helped to bring us into history through their wonderful talents as musicians and, as importantly, their insatiable curiosity to look at the roots of multiple musical traditions.”

And he raised a special point: “There is a seamlessness between ‘the past’ and ‘the present.’ While we are socialized to think about things ‘past’ and ‘present’ (as in, way over there, in Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East, and over here, as in the South, and specifically, Greensboro) as separate and distant things – they’re actually only a beat away.  What we collectively experienced that evening was a continuation of history that draws on traditions spanning the Islamic world and the global African Diaspora. In these ways, ‘the past’ and ‘the present’ collapse and I think we had a glimpse, a flash, of our historical interconnectivity.”

He added, “Music literally resonates, and it’s why so many of us are drawn to the extraordinary work of Rhiannon and Francesco. I could literally lecture for an entire semester on the history and cultures of the African Diaspora and the Islamic world (and I do!), but seeing a 19th-century African American banjo replica and Mediterranean hand-held drum being played so beautifully and ‘naturally’ together somehow make words, maps and images particularly relevant.”

By Mike Harris
Photography by Martin W. Kane
[Original Story]