Rhiannon Giddens, the MacArthur Fellowship-winning songwriter, singer, and multi-instrumentalist, has been named as the new artistic director of Boston-based global arts organization Silkroad. Her first official act in her new position will be Wednesday, when she appears with Silkroad in Tanglewood’s “Recitals From the World Stage” online concert series.
Silkroad, an international collective of musicians, composers, dancers, and visual artists, was founded in 1998 by cellist Yo-Yo Ma. It initially focused on instruments and traditions from along the historical Silk Road, but has since vastly expanded its scope and reach. With this, Giddens becomes the only person to hold the artistic director position after Ma, who stepped back in 2017. (The two collaborated this year for a socially distanced performance in commemoration of Juneteenth.) The organization was led by longtime Silkroad artists in the interim, with co-artistic directors Nicholas Cords and Shane Shanahan serving from 2017-20 and Jeffrey Beecher from 2017-19.
A classically trained singer who later picked up the banjo, Giddens rose to prominence in the American roots music world as a cofounder of the Black old-time string band Carolina Chocolate Drops, and she has been a vigorous advocate for the recognition of Black people’s contributions to old-time and other American folk music. She has been a Silkroad collaborator since 2016, appearing on the Grammy-winning album “Sing Me Home.” More recent projects include the album “there is no Other” with musician Francesco Turrisi, an album with Black banjo supergroup Our Native Daughters, and an opera based on the life of enslaved Muslim-African man Omar Ibn Said.
Locally, she performed with the Boston Pops at the 2018 July 4th Fireworks Spectacular on the Esplanade; the following spring, she masterminded a four-night residency with the Pops and conductor Keith Lockhart, including two shows where she performed her own music and two further in which she emceed a program centered on Black American composers.
“My keenest desire for Silkroad is a sharpening and reinterpretation of what it means for the ’right now.' That it becomes obvious to all that Silkroad is as American as it is possible to get in spirit, even as many of the players are from elsewhere; for what is more American than the gathering of influences from disparate areas of the globe to create something unique and fantastic,” Giddens said in a statement.
Giddens is “the unicorn that Silkroad has been looking for,” according to executive director Kathy Fletcher. “I feel like she’s going to help us . . . engage across difference, spark radical cultural collaboration and passion-driven learning, create a more hopeful and inclusive world.”
Fletcher surmised that Giddens, who is based in Ireland and typically keeps a busy touring schedule, will visit Boston for Silkroad duties a few times a year.