- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 16, 2005

More than 40 years ago in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, a group of 20 or so young men would gather every evening for a few pickup games of basketball. But the real treat came afterward, when the group, loath to leave, would spontaneously break into song.

“You’ve got all those guys just singing,” says baritone Jimmy Hayes, who will be performing as part of the a cappella group The Persuasions at the Birchmere Saturday. “And you could hear … that a few guys were singing in harmony. So I said, why don’t you come by my house and have a practice?”

The five basketball players who showed up that day went on to form The Persuasions, taking its name from a passage in the Bible. Four of the five still perform today. (Fifth member Herbert “Toubo” Rhoad died in 1988.)

“In the beginning we didn’t have a name,” Mr. Hayes says. “But one night I was browsing through the Bible and I saw the word ‘persuader,’ because Christ had to persuade a multitude of peoples.

“At this time, though, groups were all ending in ‘ions’ — the Temptations, the Vibrations — and I thought, ‘We’re going to have to persuade a multitude of people who think that a cappella music has been around and gone,’ so I came up with The Persuasions. And we’ve been going with that for the last 43 years.”

Although gospel music still provides the grounding for the group, over the years The Persuasions have performed music by everyone from the Beatles to Frank Zappa as well as their own compositions. Their newest CD, “Sing U2,” showcases the music of the Irish band. Fans include the late Mr. Zappa, who recorded their first album, and director Spike Lee, who showcased their talent in the 1990 television special, “Do It A Cappella.”

From the beginning, The Persuasions have relied on Mr. Hayes’ unerring musical sense to provide the musical ground for the group’s distinctively rich and warm harmonies.

“We’ve never used a pitch pipe,” Mr. Hayes says. “Whenever I start to sing, we’re going to sing it in that key. We’ve been doing it for so long it’s just a natural thing.”

• • •

Meanwhile, don’t let the price of gas keep you from traveling to Richmond to hear newcomer Rhiannon Giddens, who performs at Grove Avenue Coffee and Tea on Saturday.

Lately, the multitalented singer and instrumentalist has been touring as part of Sankofa Strings, a band that seeks to explore the rich heritage of banjo playing and string music in the black community. Her Saturday gig is a solo set, though she’ll be joined by band mate Dom Flemons.

“The first time we played together was perfect,” says Miss Giddens, who met the other members of her band when they played together at the Black Banjo Then and Now gathering in Boone, N.C., in April. “But all of us have had long solo careers as well.”

Today, few people are familiar with the rich tradition of black banjo and string musicianship in this country. For years black fiddlers played for country dances, for city waltzes and for home-based gatherings of blues and other music. So when members of Sankofa Strings begin their set with a rendition of a Scottish fiddle tune or contradance, it’s more of a nod to their roots than it is a departure from the norm.

“I think it’s neat to put things side by side,” says Miss Giddens, who is named for a Welsh goddess and who regularly includes Celtic music, early blues, and old-time jazz in her solo sets. “Everything today is so compartmentalized.”

For Miss Giddens’ solo run Saturday, she’ll draw inspiration from the musical legacy of her own family; it runs the gamut from country music to opera.

“I grew up in the Piedmont of North Carolina, and I used to sing folk music with my father and listen to country music with my mother’s side of the family,” says Miss Giddens. “And both my grandmothers loved ‘Hee-Haw.’ ”

As a student at Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio she majored in voice, and she still performs operatic selections as one half of the duo Eleganza. Only afterward did she teach herself the banjo, after borrowing one for a time from a friend. Later, she worked as a restaurant hostess until she could afford one of her own.

Returning to her North Carolina roots, she began to explore the roots of black music there, especially that of fiddle player Joe Thompson, who is in his late 80s. These days she and her Sankofa Strings bandmates regularly return to listen and learn. And you can be sure to hear some of his tunes whenever Miss Giddens plays.

“He’s been playing for 80 years,” she says. “He is such a part of history.”

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