From the beginning of our musical partnership we have been struck with the commonality of the human experience through music; how instruments, modes and the very functions of songs and tunes are universal from culture to culture.

In 2017, singer songwriter, banjo and fiddle player Rhiannon Giddens released Freedom Highway, an arresting collection of archival Civil Rights movement anthems alongside self-penned songs based on slave narratives. Most songs revolved around the sound of a replica minstrel banjo, an instrument which was played extensively in mid-19th century Minstrel Shows. Over the last few years, either as part of her old-time string band Carolina Chocolate Drops, as part of the Songs of our Native Daughters project (2019) or as a solo artist, Rhiannon Giddens has greatly influenced the revival of the fretless and heavier ancestor of the contemporary banjo.

A year later, Italian pianist, multi-instrumentalist and composer Francesco Turrisi released Northern Migrations, a solo piano project exploring his own Southern Italian and Mediterranean roots. All compositions on the album explored magnificently Arabic modes, early Baroque ostinato bass lines, jazz improvisations and traditional Italian songs.

Released on 3 May 2019 last on Nonesuch Records, There is no Other builds a metaphorical bridge between the two musicians’ respective musical universes. Or at least, this is what the short outline of the project suggests. From the first notes, There is no Other operates a striking deconstruction of the American folk repertoire through an alternative and unexpected use of a wide range of instruments. In the process, it reveals a common sonic ground between the African, Arabic, European and American cultures.

Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi - There is no Other (2019)
Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi – There is no Other (2019)

The modern five string banjo is often perceived today as a quintessential American instrument as it features prominently in the American folk, country, bluegrass, old-time and traditional jazz repertoires. Early incarnations of the banjo were brought to the United States by slaves via the Caribbean and West Africa from the 17th century onwards, and the instrument was gradually modernised to its present shape. In other words, when one starts tracing the lineage of the instrument, a much more complex history emerges.

The modern banjo is more than likely the synthesis of several and similar string or plucked instruments built around a gourd or a hollow body – some covered with skin – and found in different shapes all around Africa, Europe and the Middle East. The akonting, the ngoni or the kora in West Africa, the sintir in Morocco, the lute and mandolin variations all across Europe, the oud in various Arabic and Persian countries etc.

Rhiannon Giddens (vocals, minstrel banjo), Francesco Turrisi (cello banjo, frame drum, piano) and Jason Sypher (double bass) performing Ten Thousand Voices / At the Purchaser’s Option / I’m On My Way / He Will See You Through.

Focusing primarily on an American-based repertoire, the 12 songs on There is no Other include 4 new compositions, 3 covers, 2 songs from modern operas and 3 traditional songs. The double LP version of the album includes 4 additional tracks.

On “Ten Thousand Voices”, a newly written song inspired by the Trans-Saharan slave trade, Francesco Turrisi accompanies with an oriental sounding lute. He accompanies the same song on the NPR Tiny Desk concert with a cello banjo while on the Oscar Brown Jr. cover “Brown Baby”, Rhiannon Giddens plays her minstrel banjo as an Arabic stringed lute.

A cover of the classic Appalachian folk repertoire originally penned by Ola Belle Reed, “Gonna Write me a Letter” also features the cello banjo – played as an oud – and a bendir, a North African traditional frame drum. The effect is striking. Similarly, the traditional Child ballad “Little Margaret” is rhythmed by a daf, the Persian frame drum.

A staple traditional folk ballad covered over the years by Burt Ives, Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash or Jack White, “Wayfaring Stranger” features an exquisite accompaniment on piano accordion, this time lending a European and contemporary jazz feel to the song.

As a former graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music where she studied opera, Rhiannon Giddens included two songs from the American classical opera repertoire. “Trees on the Mountains” is an aria from the 1955 Carlisle Floyd opera “Susannah”. Originally composed in the Appalachian folk idiom, the song is revisited with Rhiannon Giddens on vocals and octave violin, Francesco Turrisi on piano and Dublin-based cellist Kate Ellis. A mutual friend, the current artistic director of the Irish new music collective Crash Ensemble facilitated the initial connection between Giddens and Turrisi. She features on four tracks on the album.

Featuring a contemporary arrangement for accordion and piano, “Black Swan” is another aria taken from Italian American composer and librettist Gian Carlo Menotti for his 1946 opera The Medium.

“Pizzica Di San Vito” is a traditional Italian folk song and dance from the Salento area of Southern Italy. The song was recently covered by Christina Pluhar’s Baroque ensemble L’Arpeggiatta in Mediterraneo (2013) which featured Francesco Turrisi on harpsichord and percussion.

Toying with musical modes and instrumentation throughout, the record magnificently exposes the shifting nature of a folk music that is underpinned by constant global migration flows. Transcending musical genres and physical borders, There is no Other is an exhilarating live project recorded in five days with very little editing or overdubs and fronted by two outstanding musicians.

There are very real and documented yet unheralded historical links between many of the instruments we play; and yet others of the connections we have here arise solely from our artistic instinct; but either way, the overwhelming feeling we have is that there is no Other.