By Tessa Raebeck
With his graying dreadlocks pulled back and his eyes closed, Henrique “Rique” Prince immerses himself in strumming his fiddle. While the violinist appears to be in his own world, the rest of his band, The Ebony Hillbillies, interact with their audience, engaging rushed commuters, smiling at dancing toddlers and laughing along with an elderly man performing an eclectic – and somewhat haphazard – jig. “This is the most amazing thing,” said Prince. “That the age group of our fans starts in strollers and goes all the way to the very oldest folks – who still dance.”
Whether playing for passersby at the Lincoln Center, up on stage at Carnegie Hall or below ground in the New York City subway system, The Ebony Hillbillies focus on honoring the rich history of African American string music. One of the last remaining African American string bands in the country, they will be performing at “Bluegrass and Barbecue,” the last concert in the Parrish Art Museum’s East End or Busk series this Friday.
The program has brought New York City subway performers to the museum throughout the summer.
“The idea behind East End or Busk was that I felt the perimeter of the building was very reminiscent of a subway platform,” said Amy Kirwin, associate development officer for museum events and visitor services at the museum and the creator of the summer-long series. As the finale of East End or Busk, The Ebony Hillbillies are culminating the celebration of the Parrish’s first summer in their new building.
“Let us hope that it is musical,” said Prince, referring to the self-taught style of music he has developed over a lifetime of listening to other artists and playing around with his violin and band members. “I’ve taught myself and learned from everybody I could. It is a process by which you are constantly searching for your own voice.”
Around 15 years ago, Prince formed The Ebony Hillbillies with fellow musician and friend Norris Bennett. They started as a duo of upright bass and violin.
“Over the years, the band changed with different players from duo to trio, to quartet and now its present five member make-up,” said Prince. The Ebony Hillbillies now consists of Prince on violin, Bennett on banjo, mountain dulcimer and guitar, William “Salty Bill” Salter on acoustic bass, Newman Taylor Baker on washboard and percussion and Gloria Thomas Gassaway on bones. Each member contributes to vocals.
Calling their sound the “genesis of All American music,” The Ebony Hillbillies aim to honor the history behind their music while relating it to a modern audience, according to Prince. “The earliest dedicated musicians in American history were enslaved Africans playing first for their own people, and later the owners,” he said. “Most of these players on banjos or violins played solo and in a dance style. What we have today, folk music, blues, bluegrass, country, even jazz, can in some way be found to have roots back at that time.” The songs on one set list could range from folksy classics like “Cotton Eyed Joe” to more recent hits like Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing.”
Prince is drawn to old-time string band music because “the challenge is two fold and contradictory,” he said. “In one instance, you improvise in an older style in which whole passages are modified rhythmically or re-phrased. On the other hand, you reach for more modern devices that either seem applicable or, in fact, have their roots so far back in time that it is as if you are back at their beginning again. It is like a very old suit or dress style that comes around again.”
At Bluegrass and Barbecue, that style will come around again, reverberating across the Parrish terrace and accompanied by family-style communal tables, a barbecue menu and drink specials.
Despite his affinity for closing his eyes while performing, Prince is sure of what the audience can expect when they see the Ebony Hillbillies: “A feeling that you never knew you missed, until you hear it for the first time.”
Bluegrass & BBQ featuring the Ebony Hillbillies will be held at the Parrish Art Museum, 279 Montauk Highway in Water Mill, on Friday September 6 from 5 to 8 p.m. The concert is free with museum admission. For more information, visit parrishart.org.