The Carolina Chocolate Drops has a little bit of everything going on in its sound. Though it is firmly rooted in acoustic blues, country and folk in the string band tradition, you can hear jazz, R&B, hip-hop and modern-day progressive bluegrass all hovering around the edges. You can hear the group’s infectious, danceable sound when the quartet, now composed of Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens, Hubby Jenkins and Adam Matta, plays on Friday, March 18, at the Strand Theatre in Rockland.
What’s even more interesting about the Carolina Chocolate Drops is that all four members of the band are African-American — a true rarity in country and folk circles. In 2008, they were the first black string band to play at the Grand Ole Opry. And last month, they won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album for their album “Genuine Negro Jig.”
To call them trailblazers would be accurate, but the music they’re reviving is part of one of the oldest traditions in American music: black string bands. Banjo man and multi-instrumentalist Dom Flemons knows this well, as a founding member of the group and a pioneer in putting African-American old-time string band music in the spotlight.
“The thing that has been constantly surprising and humbling about this journey was that I never expected to find a different type of folk music that no one has really heard,” said Flemons. “Black string band music has been out on the fringes for a very long time. It’s been really rewarding to be a part of a group that’s helped to create some awareness of that tradition.”
In 2005, Flemons was part of an online group called Black Banjo Players, which, as its name suggests, brought black banjo musicians together. The banjo, which is almost always associated with white bluegrass musicians, is fundamentally an African instrument. It has its roots in West African music and was brought to the New World by enslaved Africans in the 17th century. Interest in the banjo group spread rapidly, spurring an in-person get-together that brought both black and white banjo players to one spot to talk, listen and play.
Out of that meeting came the group Sankofa Strings, which featured future Chocolate Drop Rhiannon Giddens. Shortly after that, Flemons moved to North Carolina, former member Justin Robinson joined the group, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops was born.
Three full-length albums later (and a collaboration with revered 90-year-old African-American fiddler Joe Thompson), countless gigs and a Grammy Award later, the band is firmly established as a major force to be reckoned with in contemporary string band music.
“It’s hard to gauge what makes people interested in what we’re doing, but I think part of what happens is that people aren’t used to hearing this kind of black music,” said Flemons. “Black music tends to stay in certain parameters — church music, for example. So when you add string band music into it, it blows up the whole musical picture. It changes the whole approach to black music in a very big way. It adds a whole new dimension to it.”
While opening the doors to black string band music is certainly part of the group’s appeal, there’s also the fact that its members make incredibly fun music. The ever-present banjo playing of both Flemons and Giddens provides both rhythm and melody, while an array of instruments and sounds — fiddle, harmonica, clay jug, cow bones, kazoo, spoons, beatboxing — give it a deeply syncopated beat that’s difficult to resist. Original instrumental compositions are played alongside covers of songs by everyone from Johnny Cash to Tom Waits to R&B singer Blu Cantrell — their cover of her hit song “Hit ’Em Up Style” is a crowd favorite.
“We try to let the music speak for itself as much as we can. It’s pretty exuberant,” said Flemons. “I think we’re heading on into a full-on revival of old-time music, anyway. I think young people are just as likely to pick up a banjo as they are a guitar these days.”
The Carolina Chocolate Drops (carolinachocolatedrops.com) will play at 8 p.m. Friday. March 18, at the Strand Theatre. Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 at the door. For tickets, visit rocklandstrand.com.