Sunday, October 16, 2011

Corey Harris Takes The Blues From Mississippi to Mali

Corey Harris certainly has distinguished himself over the years with his blues and world music recordings. Back in February, I looked back at one of his early recordings. Today I look back at one of his recordings that was contemporaneous with his participation in the Martin Scorsese series of films on The Blues that appeared on public television. The review originally appeared in the April 2004 DC Blues Calendar, and I likely received my review copy from the record label.

The PBS television series on the Blues that was presented by Martin Scorsese was generally a disappointment with the inconsistency of the series. Only two of the seven episodes were excellent. it is unfortunate that the producers of Blues Story did not receive the funding that Scorsese received. That hour sketch of the blues as told by the performers themselves illustrated the potential of a week long series that The PBS series teased us with but failed to deliver the goods.

Despite the prominence it gave the idiom, the only performers associated with the series that may have received a boost from the series were those featured on it and any boost in record sales was generally limited to the tie-in cds and dvds connected with the series. So ‘blues albums’ by Eric Clapton, The Allman Brothers and Jimi Hendrix were top sellers while the major blues artists of the past decade such as Joe Louis Walker and Lucky Peterson (both who had exceptional discs last year) probably could have had all their recordings available in Tanzania for the boost in gave their music.

One of the few artists who may have received a boost for his career is Corey Harris who appeared in the opening episode that Scorsese produced. That episode showed Corey traveling Mississippi and performing with Bobby Rush and Otha Turner and then to Africa where he performed with Ali Farka Toure and other Africans, illustrating the links between the music of West African and the blues in the US. Rounder issued late in 2004 Harris’ new disc Mississippi to Mali, which similarly explores the musical links. Harris performs with drummer Sam Carr and soul-blues legend Bobby Rush, the granddaughter of the late Otha Turner, Shardé & the Rising Star Fife and Drum band, Ali Farka Toure, another West African guitarist Ali Magassa and percussionist Souleyman Kane on a program of blues and African music that is fascinating and compelling.

After a fine instrumental, Coahoma, that evokes the slide playing of Furry Lewis, Harris delivers a fine rendition of the classic Tommy Johnson song Big Road Blues, backed by Rush and Carr before a rendition of Skip James’ recording, Special Rider Blues, where the guitar of Ali Farka Toure and the percussion of Souleyman Kane lend an insistent, almost hypnotic quality to the performance. This is followed by one of Toure’s originals, Tamalah, with its insistent accompaniment suggests the kinship of the Delta blues music and one of the musical traditions of Africa. The linkage is also suggested by the following Station Blues, a reworking of the blues waltz, Sitting on Top of the World, where Harris is joined by Shardé Turner and her fife and drum band.

Harris performs other downhome blues like Cypress Groove, 44 Blues, and Catfish Blues along with other performances with the Mali musicians up front. Mr. Turner, \a juke joint performance with Rush and Carr is a tribute to Otha Turner who died a week before he was supposed to record with Corey, while Charlene, a Harris original, displays how well he has integrated the influences of the Mali musicians in his guitar playing, vocal and the percussion of Darrell Rose. When this musical journey ends with Harris’ riveting rendition of Blind Willie Johnson’s Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground, one recognizes one has been through an enlightening, but even more important, entertaining voyage of musical performances.

Corey writes in the liner notes, “As they say, ‘the roots of a tree cast no shadow.’ Our different histories, ages, cultures are all part of the same tree. Listen closely and you will hear the root. Give thanks.”

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