Yasmin Williams released her second album Urban Driftwood yesterday, with a sound and style that stands as “her challenge to widespread preconceptions about the music made by young Black people or acoustic guitarists. It’s Williams’s achievement that she makes that challenge sound so calming and beautiful.”
Those were the words of writer John Lingan in last Monday’s Washington Post. And it was Lingan’s appreciation for Williams and her music that led me to explore more of the work of this 24-year-old bold acoustic innovator.
Williams grew up in Northern Virginia and she recorded Urban Driftwood at studios in Kensington, Silver Spring and Takoma Park, Maryland. As Lingan notes,
Anyone who approaches the acoustic guitar with a thumb pick or their bare fingers in suburban Maryland inevitably invites comparisons to Takoma Park’s John Fahey, whose experiments with country blues made his name in the 1960s and ’70s. After inventing the term “American primitive” to describe his spare style, Fahey founded Takoma Records, which released solo guitar records by such similar visionaries as Leo Kottke and Robbie Basho and influenced generations of younger players, including Jack Rose and William Tyler.
But her music doesn’t sound like Fahey’s, and it is certainly not primitive. She has “an unorthodox, modern style of playing,” notes her website bio. “Her music has been commonly described as refreshing, relaxing, and unique and has been called some of the most imaginative guitar music out today.”
As one can see on the video of Restless Heart and elsewhere, Williams utilizes hammering, bowing, percussion, polyrhythms, and a host of two-handed techniques to achieve this modern sound. As she notes to Lingan, she is not from the Takoma Records tradition of fingerstyle guitar.
“She doesn’t say it defiantly, just as a point of clarification. ‘Both my mom and dad have family from D.C. I am Chocolate City. I grew up with go-go and Earth, Wind and Fire.‘
The latter’s 1974 single Kalimba Story, for example, inspired Williams’s use of the African thumb-piano on the song “Urban Driftwood,” which also features her on the harplike kora. A guest djembe player enlivens the piece as well, and lends it a texture not often heard in the Americana world, where most acoustic-based music like Williams’s still resides. In the last decade or so, Black artists such as Leyla McCalla and Valerie June have opened up the genre to new lyrical perspectives and styles. Rhiannon Giddens, the banjoist and musicologist, has led an effort to educate the genre’s audience about traditional American folk music’s debt to African traditions. Williams admires those artists and many others in the traditional folk world, even if her style and ambitions are a little more flexible.
Williams is listening to her own muse, playing lyrical, technically challenging tunes, with simple beauty and impressive virtuosity, as she does here on Juvenescence.
Next up is the official music video of the title track from Urban Driftwood. I love the scenes from around Washington, DC, and I am enthralled by the music. Here’s how it is described on the music video:
“The narrative plot of Urban Driftwood culminates in the repetitive, meditative sounds of guitar, kora, kalimba, and hand drums on the penultimate title track, creating a sonic landscape that communicates the feeling of movement and evokes images of the natural beauty that persists within urban spaces. As she wrote the song, Williams was reflecting on her personal role in the context of the current societal moment, considering her position as Black female guitarist within a white male dominated field. Yasmin says, ‘There are not many Black guitarists within this genre and particularly with all of the political and social discord that was/is happening in the United States in 2020, I felt it was extremely important to include a song on the album that was inspired by my heritage and paid homage to who I am, the household I grew up in, the music I listened to as a child. ‘Urban Driftwood’ is more like the music I grew up listening to than any other song I’ve released so far.’”
In this video of After the Storm, the final track on Urban Driftwood, she is playing
“…a beautiful, brand new instrument – a Skytop Guitars Grand Concert acoustic guitar. This guitar, built by Eric Weigeshoff of Skytop Guitars in New Paltz, NY, has a Tunnel 14 Redwood top, and the back and sides are made from Quilted Sapele. There are two large side soundports in lieu of a traditional soundhole in the front. These side soundports direct sound upward toward the player and out to the audience, creating an awesome 3D soundscape for the player.“
She wrote the tune after George Floyd’s murder, but — as the listener hears — it is very calming. She told Lingan, “I didn’t want it to sound aggressive, that wasn’t how I was feeling. I wanted to be hopeful, because we could always use more of that.”
Yes indeed, we do need more hope today.
My hope is that we’ll hear a great deal more of Yasmin Williams in the months and years ahead.
More to come…
Image from YasminWilliamsMusic.com