Music fans will tell you that powerful musical performances can be so completely engulfing, you feel as if you have been taken away to a special place inside the artist’s creative landscape. Literally moved by the music. Chloe and Leah Smith, the sister duo from Atlanta, Georgia, have been moving people through their music going on 11 years now. In late 2005, the sisters recorded their first album out of their basement. What was meant to be simply a Christmas present for friends and family blossomed into, not only a musical career, but a movement itself. The recordings were so well received, that they became Rising Appalachia’s first album, self-titled Leah and Chloe, released in 2006. Since then, the band has recorded five more albums, all independently released, and each with their own unique sound and style.
In an effort to educate and unify their audience, the sisters have traveled across the world, immersing themselves in folk culture and tradition. As a result, their music has evolved, offering fans a healing, educational, and unifying experience.
From the moment I heard Rising Appalachia several years ago, I was drawn to their unique blend of folk, world music, and bluegrass. Their haunting vocals, coupled with djembes, beatboxes, banjos, fiddles, and congas, create a layering of sounds that’s easy to move to and bring a smile to everyone’s faces.
As soon as I exited my car in the parking lot of the St. Augustine Amphitheatre on March 29th, I was drawn to the sounds of Arouna Diarra. It sounded like the biggest drum circle I’d ever heard, with the most melodic voice offering sweet melodies. Arouna is a griot (carrier of traditions) from the Mandingue ethnic group out of West Africa. He introduced me to a whole new sound I had never heard before. Performing with a balafon and kamel n’goni, instruments made by his family, Diarra sang powerful melodies in his native language, Bambara. While I didn’t understand the language, I felt his message. The spirit and joy he performed with was the perfect opening to the main event.
I was so carried away by Arouna’s music, I didn’t pay much attention to the setting when walking in. Once the music stopped, my friend and I had an opportunity to take a look around. While I’ve been to the St. Augustine Amphitheatre many times, this show was something special. They were set up on the Backyard Stage, an intimate setting that, like their music, unified the crowd.
Well-placed local food trucks lined the back area, with delectable food to accommodate every diet. Lights were hung around the “dance floor” area, making it feel even more cozy and intimate. Bleachers were set up along the back fence for people who needed to sit, although most of us were moving throughout the show. I don’t know if it was the setting or the music or both, but I felt like I was amongst family. Everyone, whether they knew each other or not, was interacting and dancing together. The crowd size was limited, but the energy was uncontainable.
The sisters captured the audience from the moment they took the stage, harmonizing Bright Morning Stars off their Wider Circles album. It was a powerful song and you could almost feel the audience let out a breath as they finished. It was almost as we had been collectively holding it, as if breathing might somehow cause us to miss a note. Immediately after, they jumped into a folk song they’d learned while visiting with a tribe in Costa Rica. Completely familiar and foreign, all at the same time.
Chloe and Leah’s tear-jerking and resplendent harmonies blended perfectly with percussionist Biko Casini and bassist/guitarist David Brown’s powerful sounds. Throughout the show, my body was soothed into rhythmic dancing, yet enticed into more dynamic movement simultaneously. They played a perfect blend of songs spanning every album, including Occupy, Medicine, and Find Your Way. The highlight of the evening for me, was when they sang Refugee, which they announced would be on their next album. I was mesmerized throughout the entire song. When it ended, it was as if I’d just woken from a dream. I had goosebumps on my entire body and tears rolling down my face. Needless to say, I was moved by the power of this music.
Rising Appalachia brings their audience a raw, honest, and thought-provoking energy, both in their music and performance. While I love their sound, I think what draws me to them the most is that they put their ideologies into action. In an effort to educate and unify, they founded the Slow Music Movement in 2015. Since then, they’ve implemented “sustainable touring,” traveling the country via minivan and Amtrak. They request that venues invite community food vendors and donate free tickets to local charities for each performance. For the St. Augustine show, attendees were encouraged to get involved in the community, with the Matanzas Riverkeeper, the Environmental Youth Council St. Augustine, and Herbal Action Network on site beforehand. These organizations shared their mission and educated guests on the ways they can get involved on a local level.
Rising Appalachia’s primary goal is to bring people together through music, reminding us that we are all family, despite our differences. One lyrical message at a time, they’re bringing about social change and consciousness. A breath of fresh air in these rather tumultuous times.
photo by Chad Hess