Songs of Our Native Daughters is one of those albums that might fall through the cracks because it can’t be pigeon holed into a neat genre. Which would be a pity. For there have been many so-called super groups over the years, made up of stars from other bands, but there has never been one like Our Native Daughters.
Our Native Daughters are Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla and Allison Russell. Each of the women have accomplished musical careers in their own right and bring a wealth of personal and professional experience to the project. Oh, and each of the women are also African American (well Canadian in the case of Russell).
While we can profess to be colour blind all we like, the reality is you can’t help but look at a person and notice the colour of their skin. So get over it. The fact each of them are of African descent is important, because the songs on this album deal with the reality of being of that heritage – both historically and contemporarily.
Some of the tracks are going to make a lot of people uncomfortable and some of them are going to make others angry. Unfortunately the latter will be for all the wrong reasons. All these songs should make everyone angry for the injustices and indignities they depict from the past and the present. But too many people will only be angry because they’ll see them as attacks on their precious privileges.
Maybe these people won’t be able to see past that, but for the rest of us this is an album of brilliant and emotionally potent music. Each of the songs have sprung from the experiences of African Americans and their history in North America. In “Quasheba, Quasheba” Russell recreates the history of the slave her family is descended from and tries to pass back a message of hope through the mists of time, “You were Forgotten/Almost forsaken/Your children founded generations/Your strength sustained them/They won their freedom/Traced their roots to find you waiting.”
As Giddens points out in her introduction to the collection the songs aren’t just about the African experience, they’re about being a woman and an African American. Too often shunted aside and reduced to secondary roles throughout history or ignored, the songs on this disc help to shed light on their lives and history.
“Polly Ann’s Hammer” tells the story of John Henry’s wife, the person who had to carry on when he died after being worked to death. “This is the hammer killed John Henry/Won’t kill me, won’t kill me/This is the hammer killed your daddy/Throw it down and we’ll be free.”
Nobody ever bothered to think about what happened to the wife who had to carry on, working and feeding her babies after John Henry died until now. This is a piece of brilliance which encapsulates the neglect and abuse African American women have had to, and continue to, endure.
Songs of Our Native Daughters isn’t just a statement about political and social injustice, its an album of music that’s both touching and sublime. It also serves as a timely reminder that to attempt to pigeon hole somebody’s musical inclinations because of the colour of their skin is a farce.
Four African American women playing banjos (for those who might have forgotten – the banjo was an instrument brought to North America by African slaves) is enough to make a lie out of any stereotypes you might still be harbouring about music. The fact they’re singing everything from Creole to Bluegrass influenced music – with all sorts of stops along the way – proves the diversity of African influenced music in North America and beyond. (Slaves were in the Caribbean and South America – everywhere Europeans needed disposable labour)
Songs like “Mama’s Crying Long” might break your heart, but their take on Bob Marley’s “Catch A Fire” – “Slave Driver” for their purposes – and the song “Moon Meets the Sun” are affirmations of hope for the future. This is an album as rich and textured, and fraught with violence and emotional turmoil, as the history of Africans in the Western Hemisphere. Not for the faint hearted or narrow minded, but if you let it Songs of Our Native Daughters will open your mind and strengthen your heart.