Regina Carter’s violin mixes DNA with Southern Comfort

Ethnomusicology is to music what entomology is to butterflies—a callous categorization by science of the human heart, but what Regina Carter does is take you on a journey not a dissection.

Regina Carter, violinist
Image courtesy of http://reginacarter.com

There’s a barefoot beauty to Regina Carter’s simple reverence for the songs of her ancestors. Although Regina grew up in Detroit, Michigan, she remembers her childhood trips to rural Alabama in the Appalachian Mountains—the ancient eastern spine of North America. Here the heart-rending simplicity in its folk tunes has formed an ancestral DNA for American music and it’s here where Regina Carter draws from this deep well of her own descendants for her new album, Southern Comfort.

With Regina, who played last Wednesday at the BlueShore Financial Centre for the Performing Arts  (Capilano University), I could hear everything from Ragtime to Cajun to Blues and even a few wiffs of Antonín Dvořák’s American String Quartet (owing no doubt of her training at The New England Conservatory of Music). “In the Appalachians there were Scottish and Irish descendants, slaves and Native Americans”, she said, “It was a cultural hodgepodge and the music resulting from it is intoxicating.”

It’s in the details

Ethnomusicology is to music what entomology is to butterflies—a callous categorization by science of the human heart (and I don’t mean the pump in your chest), but what Regina does is take you on a journey not a dissection. Yes, the band prefaced a few songs with archival recordings (some dating back to the 1890’s), but then slipped seamlessly into their own re-imaginings before you could even catch on that something scholarly was afoot. Compare the historic recording of Shoo Rye by Mozella Longmire with Regina’s.

Regina is indeed a virtuoso violinist, but she keeps her chops on a short leash—it’s the soul of the music that leads. Unlike, say, Paganini or Stéphane Grappelli, her virtuosity is found in the details, not the grand gestures. Joined by Marvin Sewell, guitar; Will Holshouser, accordion; Jesse Murphy, string bass; and Alvester Garnett, drums, they traced the route of her family from the Detroit suburbs to the dirt floors of rural Alabama where the family gathered to dance and remember her paternal grandfather’s youth. Her virtuosity is in how she invites you in to that gathering. Her violin has mastered the drawl and diphthong of southern speech to create a vivid imagery of hot southern nights danced far from air conditioning.

Music of the mountains

Fiona Black, Director of Programming at BlueShore Financial Centre for the Performing Arts at Cap U, introduced the show by mentioning that Regina’s DNA research had revealed an exotic blend of African and European roots (73% West African, 16% Finnish…). Of course it’s the mix that makes it wonderful. I asked Fiona how she finds such great acts for her shows up at Cap U and she explained that since she attended the 2006 World Music Expo in Seville, Spain, she found a whole world of music that had no representation in North America. Regina Carter would be an exception in this case, but Regina is among those innovative performers­—which include  Fado artist António Zambrujo (Portugal), Marcio Feraco (Brazil), and Paris Combo (France)­—that Fiona is bringing into Vancouver. So, if you’re one of those locals who equates a trip over the Ironworkers’ Memorial Bridge to a “trip out of town”, you need to get out more, particularly to the North Shore to hear some of this great music programming.

Southern Comfort

Regina’s recent albums have documented many journeys including I’ll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey to her mother’s line, Southern Comfort to her father’s, and Reverse Thread to both sides of the family’s roots back to Africa. To really appreciate her virtuosity and how sweet the homespun roots are in Southern Comfort, you should really compare it with the others.

From the standpoint of DNA research, what’s been discovered is that every one of us tracks his or her roots/routes back to Africa and maybe that’s why I think the strange allure of Regina’s music speaks so strongly. As drummer Alvester Garnett put it, “With this latest Southern music project, getting in touch with her roots in Alabama, it shows how much we have in common rather than how different we are as human beings”.

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