Album Review: Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla & Allison Russell, 'Songs of Our Native Daughters'

by Kim Ruehl (@kimruehl), Folk Alley

Songs of Our Native Daughters—a collaboration between Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Allison Russell, and Leyla McCalla—is a stunning piece of music.

In case you’re wondering what they were trying to get at when they gathered for ten days in Dirk Powell’s Louisiana studio, Kiah clears things up on track one: “I pick the banjo up and they stare at me ‘cause I’m black myself … Look me in my eyes but you don’t see me ‘cause I’m black myself.”

There’s much more to that one, of course, and Kiah pulls no punches as the lyrics progress, her warm, enveloping soul vocals pumping against the rhythm guitar. But it’s only the beginning on an album culled from slave narratives, minstrel songbooks, and channeling ancestors who were not afforded the luxury nor the audience to tell their own stories.

“Mama’s Crying Long” is perhaps the starkest example: a song about a black child watching his mother get raped by a white man, before she fights back and winds up getting lynched. There’s no metaphor wide enough to drape this story in, so singer Giddens doesn’t bother. Her exquisite vocals carry the too-real imagery in a way that makes you understand, if you didn’t already, that this is who we humans have been to one another. This is what we’ve done. What are we doing now?

“Blood and Bones” and “Slave Driver” poke at the same questions. Then comes “Barbados,” where Giddens weaves together history and the present seamlessly in a poem that calls us all to task. In the container of this song, she illustrates how there is barely distance between the “sugar and rum” focus of once upon a time and the “tablets, laptops, phones” focus of us here in the present day. (“Relax, my friend,” she says at the end of her poem, with a healthy dose of irony as she links the slavery of then to the slavery of now. “We’re not all complicit.”)

To transport us from there to here, Giddens sings us over time in a wordless breeze while Russell, Kiah, and McCalla sing in the background like a flock of birds flying across the centuries. It calls to mind the way Octavia Butler’s Dana shifts between history and the present in Kindred.

Indeed, this entire album is about such phenomenal heroines—real and imagined, past and present, allegorical and exact. How much progress we’ve made and yet how little.

“Black women have historically had the most to lose,” Giddens writes in the liners, “and have therefore been the fiercest fighters for justice—in large, public ways that are only beginning to be highlighted, and in countless domestic ways that will most likely never be acknowledged.”

The voices and instruments blend beautifully throughout the album as they acknowledge the women and the ways they have survived, whether by remembering slave ancestors (“Quasheba, Quasheba”), honoring women like Etta Baker (“I Knew I Could Fly”), or leaning on the life-sustaining utility and radical defiance of dancing (“Moon Meets the Sun,” “Music and Joy”).

While the disc pulls heavily from history, to honor those who came before, there is a leaning-forward about it, a recognition of the privilege of having the space to create this, a determination to improve upon what we’ve been handed so as to never go backward.

To that end, they leave us with Russell’s winged vocals against a couple of banjos and McCalla’s languid cello.

“None of us is here for long,” Russell sings. “But you’re not alone. In the cradle of the circle are the ones who came before you. All their strength is yours now. You’re not alone.”

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Songs of Our Native Daughters is available now via Smithsonian Folkways Recordings at iTunes and Amazon.com.

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