Friday, June 17, 2005

Music you've never heard, part 2

I got cajoled into-- er, volunteered last weekend to help a public radio program that's not even broadcast here in 19 Minutesland. Which is how I found myself at the Flagstaff Folk Festival last Saturday, still recovering from a bout of the stomach flu, not altogether convinced I wanted to sit through the performance by the Sankofa Strings that I was tasked to record. That attitude changed about 25 seconds into their set.

The group was billed as coming from the tradition of Black string bands, a tradition I wasn't familiar with -- for good reason, as it turns out. The tradition has all but died out since the 1950s. Even in the 1920s and '30s, while the tradition was still alive and healthy, few people outside the African-American community were familiar with it, because much of its music was being passed off as being by white bands. Until last week, there was apparently only one traditional black string band performing in the United States.

The Sankofa Strings makes two. The group started practicing together on June 7th. The Flagstaff performance was their first-ever gig. You'll note I said it took me 25 seconds to get hooked. That's about how long it took band member Dom Flemons to introduce the group at the start of the first song. At the end of the half-hour set, the audience, wedged into a room that was taller than it was wide, burst into a sustained standing ovation. Most, if not all, the people in attendance also had no idea this was Sankofa Strings' first concert.

For the first time in years, I found myself pouncing at the end of a concert to proffer an interview request. And in the studio the next morning, they were just as infectious as they were on stage. In an interview that lasted longer than their Saturday concert (since edited to a more radio-friendly length), the three group members articulately made the case for why the black string tradition should be more than just a novelty.

In a media environment with sensible priorities, the Sankofa Strings would get the attention they deserve. They'll play two more concerts in northern Arizona this weekend, including a Sunday show as part of a "Juneteenth" celebration at Arcosanti.

Monday, the media (probably including the 19 Minutes staff, too) will go back to the important work of breaking down the impending Cruise-Holmes nuptuals. Except, apparently, NBC, which is still stuck on the "Runaway Bride" story.

So in the meantime, check out the interview with Sankofa Strings.

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