The Ebony Hillbillies strive to evoke the spirit of joy wherever they perform. “It’s important to feel and experience this music,” says Henrique Prince. “This is music that gets you free. It connects people.”
Henrique didn’t start his musical career playing in a string band. Far from it, in fact. He came from a musical family. “My parents are from the Caribbean. I grew up with calypso music in our home, and there was a party with dancing every weekend during the 1940s and 50s.” But Henrique studied classical music, starting with the violin. He made his way from New York to the west coast, where he studied music. While immersed in classical music, even playing in a symphony orchestra, his heart led him to play the kind of music he heard while growing up.
He began listening to old music. “The musicians in the 1920s and 30s were so good for the time. There are not a lot of recordings, and the ones I have heard were really good. Their instrument work was fairly sophisticated, surprisingly so, and I believe that speaks to the era. Many were rural players, and the music they created was jazz.”
While all the musicians in the Ebony Hillbillies are accomplished professional musicians, each had an interest in the more ancient music. “We are a string band,” says Henrique. “What we do is original music while extending the idea of ancient music. A lot of styles of string music encapsulate the survival technique. It was originally music played for the musicians’ own sanity; then it became music audiences paid to hear.”
Henrique got wind of a 1930s guitar/fiddle group called The Mississippi Shieks.
“I was so impressed with their sound.”
He then discovered the Altamont Recordings of Black String band Music from the Library of Congress. Soon Enrique met his musical partner, Norris Washington Bennett, after auditioning for a New York City bluegrass band. “Norris played banjo, mountain dulcimer, guitar, and he was an excellent vocalist.” He was also a full-time “busker” in Europe.
Things began to gel when, on a whim, the duo were busking together in Grand Central Station. “We played “Shenandoah” and realized how powerful that was,” Enrique says. “We brought together a string band tradition that pre-dates jazz and a song that came from another century.”
The Ebony Hillbillies formed, and other musicians joined the band. William “Salty Bill” Salter joined on shaker percussion and vocals. His musical pedigree is impressive, with multiple Grammys as co-writer of pop hits including “Just the Two of Us” and “Where is the Love.” Also in the band are Gloria Thomas Gassaway, Allanah Salter, Newman Taylor Baker, and Ali Rahman, all of whom brought a fresh perspective to the band. “Even with the other things we have accomplished individually, the music we play together as The Ebony Hillbillies helps our collective experiences add to the richness of our lives,” says Henrique.
While they started playing in the streets, The Ebony Hillbillies have risen to great heights, playing in venues like Carnegie Hall and the Lincoln Center. They have had many television appearances and collaborated with visual artists at The Whitney and The Smithsonian Museum.
Their genuine passion is sharing music with others, especially children. Before Covid, the band presented music workshops for children through their foundation. “Kids just naturally get it,” says Enrique. “And I mean kids all over the world. We did a workshop for children in Bulgaria, and their reaction to the music was the same. Kids take on music like it is their own. It’s refreshing and inspiring, and it keeps us going.” Unfortunately, during the Covid pandemic, Norris Bennett passed away. But Henrique says the band will still play on. “The music we play together as The Ebony Hillbillies makes our collective experiences add to the richness of our lives.”
Henrique describes the music that The Ebony Hillbillies play as “rawkus, rowdy, and celebratory. It should inspire people to get up off their bottoms. That’s what we try to achieve. We want to connect with everyone we play for on a deeper level.”
The Ebony Hillbillies have released four CDs, Sabrina’s Holiday (2004), I Thought You Knew (2005), Barefoot and Flying (2005), and Slappin’ A Rabbit – Live! (2015). Their last album, Five Miles from Town (2017), features eleven tracks with an additional three skits. It’s a musical journey with twists and turns. From a down-home fiddle jam with “Hog Tied Man” to a hauntingly beautiful tale with a cautionary warning, “Fork in the Road,” the album showcases the broad range of talent in the band. Listening to their version of “Wang Dang Doodle” makes it hard to stay seated.
Socially conscious, soulful, funky, and even a bit romantic, don’t try to pin down the eclectic musical styles performed by The Ebony Hillbillies. Look for more brilliant music coming soon – they are currently working on a new project in the studio.