Origins, the first album from the old-time duo Giri and Uma Peters, is stocked with songs that have long been in circulation. The Indian-American siblings bring zippy concision to their Appalachian fiddle and banjo selections and springiness to their Piedmont blues numbers, all of which — aside from for the Giri original "Old Joe" — have come to be closely associated with white musicians and audiences and shown up in folkie repertoires and Grateful Dead set lists. But the Peters aren't appealing to familiarity alone; they're intent on spotlighting the black musical traditions that shaped and spread the tunes. "I wanted to try to change how people listen to and think about them," Giri writes in an essay that accompanies the album. "By exploring the origins of each song, we can use the music as a guide to explore America's history of slavery, the intermixing of cultures, and even racism."
The project doesn't just prove the brother-sister outfit to be worthy of significant attention and stage time in the old-time, string band, bluegrass and folk circles in which they've participated in increasingly visible ways for several years. As it happens, it also served as Giri's eighth grade project at Nashville's Linden Waldorf School. The liner notes, which include song histories and a bibliography, are the work of a 14-year-old who printed his work in a CD insert also taped it onto a tri-fold cardboard backboard, the stuff of science fair displays. Giri also co-produced the album with engineer Robertson Stokes at Jerry Douglas' studio, and he and 11-year-old Uma are the only performers on it; she often provides a steady rhythmic foundation on clawhammer banjo while he switches between acoustic guitar and fiddle, his voice jaunty and maturing, hers reedy and true and their arrangements rife with youthful experimentation.
As picking prodigies with these particular musicological interests, Giri and Uma are merging a developmental approach that's common in bluegrass — young woodshedders seeking formal and informal mentorship from the seasoned pros whose ranks they seek to soon join — with an educational mission that's gaining momentum among acoustic musicians of color.
The Peters started studying the Suzuki violin method as small children, until Giri was mesmerized by the blurring of classical and bluegrass sensibilities in footage of The Goat Rodeo Sessions, whose quartet of collaborators featured the mandolin-playing former prodigy Chris Thile. Giri went all in on bluegrass, until he recognized the fun to be had joining his sister in playing more loose-limbed, old-time forms, which she'd begun picking up from the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Rhiannon Giddens in particular.
What they've learned from the examples of Giddens and her band mates, and other musicians like Jake Blount that they've encountered since, goes well beyond techniques and repertoire. Already conspicuous as black and brown performers preserving, reviving and reinventing Appalachian and Piedmont sounds, Giddens and her contemporary inheritors also do the work of laying out lost (i.e. whitewashed) musical history: the African roots of the banjo, the once-robust black string band tradition, the perversions of blackface minstrelsy. Giri and Uma understand that highlighting the very real diversity of the music's roots helps make room for a wider range of voices in the present, theirs included.
Perched on stuffed chairs in their sunlit living room, a soft instrument case at Uma's feet holding a gourd banjo on loan from Giddens and an end table next to Giri piled high with books he cites as sources, they give earnest commentary on the album and their journeys. It seemed right to invite their mom, Sarika Peters, a pediatric psychologist, to join the interview too. At moments when they appeared timid, she warmly reassured them that their perspectives are worth sharing; in their household, intellectual curiosity is as much a point of pride as instrumental prowess. Plus, she's had plenty to do with helping them find stepping stones — lessons, music camps, festival contests — and a burgeoning sense of community.
I hear that you had a pretty formative experience last summer
Uma: We went to the August Heritage Center. It's like a music camp thing. That week was old-time and blues week. And so we met a lot of people, and they started telling us about the history and all that stuff, and that's how we both got interested in seeing where the songs actually came from.
Giri: I did the blues week. My mentor for the project, Greg Adams from the Smithsonian [Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage], he was at the camp. That was a place where we talked about it more. And that's when I began to see how connected all the genres were. All these musicians in the classes that I was in, they all knew the history as well and they were telling me the stories behind the songs and how it was all just string band music at first. ... But before that, I sort of got interested when Rhiannon came over here and she started telling stories about the songs. I knew the bluegrass version of "Sitting on Top of the World," and she told me to go look at the original version.
By the Mississippi Sheiks?
Giri: Yeah. Then we went to Washington D.C. and I got to visit the Smithsonian Folkways Archive. I guess that's sort of when I started thinking.
I've heard of a number of musicians of color say that seeing the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and especially Rhiannon Giddens, was transformative for them. For some, it was the first time they saw someone who looked like them making string band music. How did that effect you?
Uma: At first I was kinda like with Giri, more in that bluegrass world [than old-time]. When we started hearing her at shows, I got more interested in the style that she was playing. Then I was starting to play some of those songs. When I would look for videos of them for references or something, then I would see all of these different versions. That's kind of what got me interested in that.
Giri: She's also said a lot that it really helped her to see a female person of color playing the banjo. That inspired her to keep going.
Sarika [to Uma]: Say what you said. What did you think of banjo before you saw her? It's okay. You can say it.
Uma: That it was a hillbilly instrument and only men who are white play it.
There are certainly reasons that people have that perception.
You've been mentored by Rhiannon Giddens over the last several months. I saw the video of you performing together at the Big Ears Festival. What have you learned? What kinds of things have you talked about?
Uma: We were learning songs out of the Briggs Banjo Instructor. It was all minstrel music written in tab[ulature] in that book. ... We talked about the minstrel style. It was not so much about the notes. It was more about the rhythm and the groove. She was working with me to get some of that style. And she told me some of the history behind the songs, what they were used for.
You participated in the first Shout and Shine diversity showcase at the annual International Bluegrass Music Association gathering a few years back. Was that a moment when you started to think more about the connections you wanted to draw between identity and music?
Giri: That was definitely a place where I began to see that it was not just us who were in that boat, that it was a bunch of other people and that it was a work in progress, but if we all worked together it could be done — just changing those stereotypes of it being a white hillbilly genre back to what American music, in my mind, should be.
Sarika: You guys correct me if I'm wrong, but that's probably the first time you felt a true sense of community in this genre. We started to seek out more festivals and playing opportunities where they would — is it fair to say guys? — where you would feel that sense of community? Where you would find your people and be comfortable?
I know we're talking a little bit around it. They will be very specific if you want them to.
I think it might help to be specific.
Sarika: OK, guys talk about your journey. Why have you sought out musicians of color?
Giri: I guess when we started playing bluegrass, I had always come across a sense of ignorance and racism and exclusivity because of our skin color. I always didn't understand and I just wanted to play music and have fun, because I liked playing music. I just wanted it to be something that everybody could come together and enjoy. And then I guess it was when I heard that the banjo originated from Africa that I got interested in whether the genre had always been of that kind of stereotype, you know, had always been that white. I was curious about how it went from an African thing to where I hardly saw any Africans playing the genre.
Where have you turned to do further research?
Giri: Greg, my mentor, gave me lots of suggestions and sent me old newspaper articles. [Old-time musician and scholar] Jake Blount sent me lots of old recordings too, many versions of songs that sounded completely different from how they sound now. Then I had a bunch of books that I used too. One was "The Land Where the Blues Began" by Alan Lomax. ... "Segregating Sound," that's when I started learning about how the genres came to be genres and how stereotypes were put in place. And who did it. ...At Smithsonian Folkways they showed me a sheet of what the people had to fill out in order to record [at field recording sessions]. Your race was part of that. ... "Banjo Roots and Branches," this talks about in depth where the Banjo originated from, what African instruments it originated from. Because it didn't come to America being the Banjo that it is today.
Who are other musicians you consider kindred spirits, people you feel share your mission?
Uma: Abigail Washburn. Amythyst Kiah.
Giri: I'd say I look up to all those people definitely, but I also don't want to be contained in a box. So I want to take this, what I know, and sort of branch out. I want to play other genres as well and branch this history and research out to those other genres and how everything is kind of connected.
Do you mean blues?
Giri: Yeah, I've been getting more interested in blues, but I have many inspirations from a lot of different genres. I listen to a lot of rock music, but also I listen to Indian music and jazz. I have a bunch of my grandfather's old jazz records. I want to, I guess, explore everything.
As you learn more about the overlooked histories and artificially whitewashed sources of American string band traditions, do you feel a sense of responsibility to share that alongside making music?
Giri: For sure. I don't want to assume all of the responsibility, So I guess this is also part of my project. This is just a brief summary of all this information that's out there. But my goal is to encourage people who play music to also listen to music and enjoy it to do their own research and spread the word.
You recorded some very familiar tunes for this album, but I know that you chose them, and how you wanted to perform them, for a reason. What guided those decisions?
Giri: Most of the songs I chose were all connected, except for my original ["Old Joe"], but I tried to connect that to the other songs as well. All of these songs are basically said to have African descent. I just want to give credit to those people for being the first people to play this music.
Most of the songs are either Piedmont blues or Appalachian fiddle and banjo tunes, but your version of "John Henry," which you learned from Rhiannon Giddens and her mentor Joe Thompson, goes from one of those styles to the other. Did you come up with that arrangement?
Uma: Yeah. The second part, we started off playing it that way, and then Giri had this idea to do that [fingerstyle blues] intro part, and it sounded really cool.
Giri: I was kind of obsessed with blues guitar. We were practicing in her room, just doing "John Henry," and I was just noodling around when I was probably supposed to be doing something else, but then I thought it sounded kind of cool. I just slowed it down and started playing it, but it was also a little similar to Jake Blount's version of that song.
Sarika: You guys want to talk about Elizabeth Cotten?
Uma: Well, she was a black, fingerpicking, female who started when she was really young also. She wrote this song "Babe It Ain't No Lie."
Which you sing on the album.
Giri: There's a bunch of bluegrass musicians who play her songs too, like "Freight Train" especially is very popular, and they don't know that it was her who wrote it.
It's entirely possible to master enough of the repertoire of bluegrass and old-time standards to be able to jump in and jam with people at festivals and picking parties without learning the sources or lineages of the songs. You're advocating for not stopping there.
Giri: That's how I started. I was one of those people. I'm not trying to say that they're bad because they don't know. ... I just want people have the same opportunity that I was able to have from other people who informed me.