(tncms-asset)d8b1fd0e-b06f-11e8-a980-00163ec2aa770 —(/tncms-asset)GREENSBORO — Rhiannon Giddens is back home.
But this visit will bring little rest for the internationally-renowned, Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, actor and MacArthur “genius grant” recipient.
Giddens has returned for intense days at the inaugural N.C. Folk Festival, where she will both perform and serve as guest curator.
Her performances start on the eve of the festival tonight, at a sold-out Songs of Hope & Justice concert organized by singer/songwriter Laurelyn Dossett.
Giddens then will appear daily at the free, outdoor multicultural festival of music, dancing, storytelling, crafts and food.
The festival replaces the National Folk Festival, which downtown hosted from 2015 to 2017. Giddens played and sang at the national event the first year it was in Greensboro.
As the guest curator of this year’s festival, Giddens has brought several select performers whose work she wants to support.
“Because of how I approach my music, I chose people who also approach their music in a similar way,” Giddens said during a visit home in July. “I am really happy that I get a little say in who gets to come.”
Those performers include two from Greensboro: her sister Lalenja Harrington and mandolinist Eric Robertson.
They are among more than 30 festival acts that include dance, storytelling and musical artists performing blues, bluegrass, beach music, Brazilian choro, Puerto Rican bomba and plena, West African, Western swing, zydeco, country, Celtic, New Orleans funk, reggae, Jewish Bukharan, Indian sitar and tabla and gypsy jazz.
Last year’s festival attracted about 162,000 people. Organizers with ArtsGreensboro expect about 175,000 this year.
Now 41, Giddens achieved national prominence as a founding member of the African-American string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops, whose 2010 album “Genuine Negro Jig” earned a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album.
She has since gone on to record solo albums, including the 2017 “Freedom Highway.”
She based its songs on slave narratives, African-American experiences of the last century and the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
For the folk festival, Giddens has organized programs that focus on the banjo and on dance, two of her interests. She won the 2016 Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, the first woman to win the award.
“She is very interested in telling stories and histories about the banjo, that perhaps haven’t been told before,” said Amy Grossmann, folk festival director with ArtsGreensboro. “It is an African instrument. It was played by African-Americans in string band music throughout this area. It’s one of those things that Rhiannon is very passionate about.”
Giddens will host a banjo symposium of other researchers and scholars on Saturday morning at The Van Dyke Performance Space at the Greensboro Cultural Center.
Joining her will be Greg Adams of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage; Michael Newton, a leading scholar of Scottish Gaelic heritage; Kristina Gaddy; Dena Jennings and Pete Ross.
Amythyst Kiah, an alt-country and blues singer/songwriter and instrumentalist from Johnson City, Tenn., is among performers that Giddens recruited.
Kiah will join Giddens and other artists in a banjo traditions session at 1:15 p.m. Saturday on the Wells Fargo Lawn Stage.
“She plays guitar and banjo and has this most amazing voice,” Giddens said of Kiah. “When she opens up her mouth, you feel like the ancestors are coming through. She is very into the history of our music and into letting the history infuse what she brings to the music.”
Such compliments mean much to Kiah.
“For someone of that stature to recognize me in that way is as good as any award I can get,” Kiah said as she drove to a performance last month in Vermont.
Back in January 2017, Kiah received an email from Giddens’ agent, asking if Kiah would open for some dates on the “Freedom Highway” tour.
Giddens had seen a video of Kiah’s performance at the Cambridge Folk Festival in England.
“Being hand-picked by her was a big deal,” Kiah said.
Kiah also will perform solo at the folk festival on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, and in a Women Masters of Tradition workshop on Sunday.
“I have been playing in Durham and Raleigh, and I’m happy to come to Greensboro now,” Kiah said.
Francesco Turrisi, a percussionist and pianist, comes from Turin, Italy, and now lives in Dublin, Ireland. He will join Giddens, Harrington and Robyn Watson in Friday’s opening performance.
Robyn Watson, a tap dancer from Philadelphia, has performed with noted tap artists such as Savion Glover. She coached Giddens to take over the role of Audra McDonald in the Broadway musical “Shuffle Along,” until producers closed the show.
Watson also will join Giddens in the Roots of American Dance workshop on Saturday.
“It’s important to look at tap as a folk art form because of how it came about and the different cultural influences that went into it,” Giddens said. “I am excited to have the opportunity to bring her and her form of dancing, which is an improvisational style rather than the classical Broadway style.”
Watson, Turrisi and dance artists Matthew Olwell and Emily Oleson will be among those joining Giddens in a workshop exploring the relationship between banjo and dance, and the popularity of dance-offs.
Olwell and Oleson will bring CyberTrad, an experimental performance project that combines traditional and original Irish and Breton music with rhythmic elements of funk and hip-hop.
Throughout the festival, Giddens will sing plenty.
She and her band will perform Saturday night, featuring songs from her albums including “Freedom Highway” and “Tomorrow is My Turn.” Local vocalist and instrumentalist Eric Robertson will join them.
Helping to curate a festival in her home state carries special significance for Giddens, the performers that she brings and her audience.
“I have always been very vocal about how much North Carolina as a state and as a culture has played into who I am as an artist today,” Giddens said. “What I have been able to do on a national stage and an international stage wouldn’t be what it is without having grown up in North Carolina.”
“For me, it’s a way to continue that energy,” she said. “I received so much from teachers here, from musicians here, from institutions here like the Governor’s School. I want to put that back into North Carolina rather than just sort of skipping out and never coming back. Whatever I can do in any small way to enrich or to help or to bring that energy back home, I want to do.”