● By Phil Reser
Photo courtesy of Corey Harris
Exploring and Celebrating the Blues
Historians trace the origin of the blues to music performed by slaves on southern plantations around the turn of the 20th century.
While blues music is considered a distinctly American musical form, the musical links between Africa and Mississippi are closely related.
African-American Corey Harris is a guitarist, vocalist and songwriter who is keenly aware of his ancestral roots and the history of his people, here in the United States and in Africa, and he shares that experience in song like an African griot storyteller.
Although he grew up in Denver, where he played blues, R&B, funk and reggae, he has always been interested in the African foundation of what he considered “black music.”
“I don’t think an artist can play the blues without dealing with the culture and history it comes from,” he says.
As a student at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, he majored in anthropology, while taking exploratory trips to Cameroon, West Africa.
“I already knew the blues came from black people, so that wasn’t anything I felt like I had to investigate in Africa, but I did learn more about different types of music in the places that I was. I was able to play with different people whose music I had heard and been a fan of, like Boubacar Traoré and Habib Koité and Djelimady Tounkara. Ali Farka Touré, of course, was a big influence on me.”
Says Harris, “In Africa, they’ve got so much homegrown music, it’s not like they are lacking any musical styles. They know about the blues but they don’t really categorize blues as different from jazz, like a lot of us over here do. They just look at it as black music. One minute you’re listening to Sonny Boy Williamson and the next it’s John Coltrane, then after that it’s Muddy Waters. They appreciate our music much more than we do theirs. And a lot of it, I guess you might say, is because the U.S. floods the world with media and entertainment, and so it’s out there and it’s been out there for some time, whereas people are still, in this country, getting a handle on, like, the music of Mali.”
Harris also believes it is difficult for many Americans to explore the musical connection between their nation and Africa.
“I think that America cannot yet truly admit to the reality of slavery, so the African roots are misunderstood and disrespected.”
Inspired by his participation in Martin Scorsese’s 2003 documentary, “Feel Like Going Home,” he immediately created and released his CD, “Mississippi to Mali,” and began to explore more unexpected directions with his compositions.
With his 2005 album, Daily Bread, he explored reggae, mixing rasta numbers with traditional blues. Two years later, “Zion Crossroads,” a pure reggae collection, defied any notion that he could be musically pigeonholed.
After that, he seesawed between genres, teaming with harpist Phil Wiggins, touring and producing a acoustic blues album. Then he toured with his band, “Rasta Blues Experience”, playing reggae to blues to jazz, resulting in the “Father Son, Mother Earth” CD.
Harris has performed, recorded, and toured with BB King, TajMahal, Buddy Guy, R.L. Burnside, Ali Farka Toure, Dave Matthews Band, Tracy Chapman, Olu Dara, Wilco and others.
“My music, it’s just got sides to it. Even though it’s pretty much all blues, I’ve got New Orleans-type stuff, I’ve got Virginia-type, Piedmont-type stuff. I have had stuff that sounded more like Texas and Mississippi, and stuff where I played the kazoo. I’ve always tried to keep it interesting for myself and other people. I feel like you have to include cultural and spiritual sides of music in what you do.”
Harris is one of a team of premier blues artists who performed on last year’s “True Blues,” a 13-song live CD set released last year. Recorded throughout the United States, “True Blues” explores and celebrates the blues genre and follows its rich history from the Mississippi delta of the early 1900s to the present day. It includes performances by Harris, Taj Mahal, Shemekia Copeland, Guy Davis, Alvin Youngblood Hart and Phil Wiggins.
Currently, Harris is hosting the “True Blues” tour with Davis and Hart in an evening of music and conversation, which vividly brings to life this crucial wellspring of American music.
True Blues: An evening with Corey Harris with Guy Davis and Alvin Youngblood Hart
Laxson Auditorium, Chico State University
Cascade Theater, Redding