Several years ago I was at a
neighborhood party where the host had tuned in a local blues to set as
background music. A woman at the party asked that the music be changed because
she didn’t like blues music. She said the blues sounded dated to her and the
music itself implied a kind of pre-Civil Rights misery she didn’t like and
didn’t want to be reminded of.
I remember being a little irritated at this commentary, but said nothing. Blues, its regional sounds, tones and its lyrics, like it or not, are all a part of a legacy about the culture from where it comes. Misery, misogyny, racial injustices, class oppression, dirty politics and bad relationships of every kind have always been part and parcel to the blues and a clever way to slip messages past the polite society censors about the culture and its people. Like most musical genres the blues is a kind of historical record, but it’s often an uncomfortable history. Fortunately, a lone person at a party not liking the genre certainly isn’t going to stop it. Have a beef? Have a broken heart or soul? Have a confession? Add a guitar and it’s magically transformed into something universal. Have blues will travel.
And the blues do indeed
travel. Just one listen to The Rough Guide to Country Blues, out on the World
Music Network/Rough Guide’s label, and all sorts of wonders appear. Revered
rock guitar licks, jazz phrases and familiar vocal turns, growls and slides
hide in plain sight on this collection of country blues that all were recorded
between 1926 and 1935 by the pioneers of country blues. It’s filled with sly
snatches of ragtime, gospel, hillbilly twangy goodness and Dixieland jazz.
For the skeptics who just can’t imagine why they would want to listen to some old scratchy recordings, let me remind you these songs are the real deal and, here’s the kicker, you probably already know a fair number of them. Proof is in The Rough Guide to Country Blues opening track the hauntingly good “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues” by Skip James. Some of you might recognize it from T. Bone Burnett’s soundtrack from the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” as sung by Chris Thomas King.
Some might recognize Memphis Minnie & Kansas Joe’s “New Dirty Dozen,” a future version of the song was used in Quincy Jones’s movie soundtrack “The Color Purple” and sung by Tata Vega. Frank Stokes appears on the Rough Guide on “I Got Mine.” Ry Cooder and Pink Anderson have cut versions of this song. Just as Rhiannon Giddens took cues from the vocals of Geeshi Wiley on her “Last Kind Words Blues.”
Halfway through the Rough Guide listeners get a sweet string laced version the Mississippi Sheiks’s “Sitting on Top of the World.” As with all things good and right with the world, what goes around comes around and “Sitting on Top of the World” has gone around and around. This song has been recorded by a few notables like Howlin’ Wolf, Doc Watson, Cream, Chris Goss & the Forest Rangers, Ray Charles, The Grateful Dead, Jack White and Janis Joplin.
The Rough Guide to Country
Blues possesses some real gems, songs that just shouldn’t be missed like the
sweet jaunty rag of Blind Willie McTell’s “Georgia Rag” or the guitar licks
found on Blind Willie Johnson’s “God Moves on the Water” or Bukka White’s “Sic
‘Em Dogs On,” or the sheer goodness of Big Bill Boonzy’s “How You Want It
Done?” or Blind Blake’s “Come On Boys Let’s Do That Messin’ Around.”
And there are some blues
artists that shouldn’t be missed like Charley Patton’s “A Spoonful Blues,” Son
House’s “My Black Mama – Part I” and Leadbelly’s “Packin’ Trunk Blues.”
And no listener wants to
miss out on these lyrics on Tommy Johnson’s “Cool Drink of Water Blues.”
I asked for water, and she gave me gasoline I asked for water, she gave me gasoline I asked for water and she gave me gasoline Lord, Lordy, Lord
Crying, Lord, I wonder will I ever get back home Crying, Lord, I wonder will I ever get back home Lord, Lordy, Lord
Or these lyrics from Son
House’s “My Black Mam – Part I”
Oh, Lord have mercy on my wicked soul, Wouldn’t mistreat you baby for my weight in gold, Oh, Lord have mercy on my wicked soul, Mmm, mmm, mmm, mmm.
Virtuoso guitarist and singer-songwriter Oumar Konate was born in Gao, northern Mali. At six, Oumar was leading his first band in the street in front of the family home.
While a student at the National School of Arts (l’Institut National des Arts) in Bamako, Mali’s capital, Oumar recorded his first album Lahidou (The Promise) in 2007. He has since collaborated with many great artists in Malian music; including Vieux Farka Toure, Sidi Toure, Khaira Arby and others.
Oumar was a guest guitarist on Sidi Toure’s 2011 album Sahel Folk. He regularly tours as backing guitarist to Vieux Farka Toure. He leads the house band on the popular monthly television variety show Tounkagouna on Malian National TV ORTM.
In June 2011, Oumar was invited to perform at the Mali Festival in Sweden. He toured the USA with singer Khaira Arby in the spring of 2012 and returned again with his own band in July of that year to perform at Lincoln Center Out of Doors and at the Grassroots Festival near Ithaca, New York.
In January 2012, he appeared at the Festival au Desert, Essakane in Timbuktu, Mali.
“Addoh” (Clermont Music) was Oumar Konaté’s international debut album, released in 2014.
In 2016 he was awarded the Tamani d’Or, the Malian music industry’s leading music award.
“Maya Maya” was released while Mali was in turmoil.
“Live in America” (2017) contains fiery Afro-rock by Oumar Konaté with his power trio on its 2014 tour. The band included Makan Camara and Cheick Siriman Sissoko.
In 2019 Oumar Konate released “I Love You Inna,” recorded in Bamako during the Spring of 2018.
Matuto is a blues and Brazilian music collective based in New York City. Guitarist Clay Ross and accordionist Rob Curto formed the band in 2009. A varying group of musicians join Ross and Curto during their tours.
Blues festival Blues on the Fox will take place June 14 and 15, 2019 in Aurora, Illinois.
The lineup includes guitarist and vocalist Ana Popovic, blues legend Taj Mahal, rising blues musician Jamiah Rogers, acclaimed guitarist Ronnie Baker Brooks, renowned guitarist Coco Montoya, and steel guitar maestro Robert Randolph and the Family Band.
Taj Mahal is a multi-instrumentalist, composer, producer, ethnomusicologist, and award-winning artists. His music includes elements of Afro-Caribbean music, blues, folk, hula, funk and other influences.
Taj Mahal was born Henry Saint Clair Fredericks on May 17, 1942 in Harlem but grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts. His father a jazz pianist composer and arranger of Caribbean descent and his mother a gospel-singing schoolteacher from South Carolina encouraged their children to respect and be proud of their roots. His father had an extensive record collection and a short-wave radio that brought sounds from near and far to Taj’s ears. His parents also started him on classical piano lessons but after two weeks he says “it was already clear I had my own concept of how I wanted to play.” The lessons stopped but Taj didn’t.
In addition to piano, the young musician learned to play the clarinet trombone and harmonica and he loved to sing. He discovered his stepfather’s guitar and became serious about it in his early teens when Lynnwood Perry an accomplished young guitarist from North Carolina moved in next door. Perry was an expert in the Piedmont style of playing but he could also play like Muddy Waters Lightin’ Hopkins John Lee Hooker and Jimmy Reed. Taj was inspired to begin playing guitar in earnest.
Springfield in the 1950s was full of recent arrivals both from abroad and from elsewhere in the U.S. “We spoke several dialects in my house — Southern Caribbean African — and we heard dialects from eastern and western Europe,” said Taj. In addition musicians from the Caribbean Africa and all over the U.S. frequently visited the Fredericks’ household. Taj became even more fascinated with roots — where all the different forms of music he was hearing came from what path they took to get to their current states how they influenced each other on the way. He threw himself into the study of older forms of African-American music, music the record companies largely ignored.
While attending the University of Massachusetts at Amherst as an agriculture student in the early 1960s the musician transformed himself into Taj Mahal an idea that came to him in a dream. He began playing with the popular U. Mass. party band The Elektras then left Massachusetts in 1964 for the blues-heavy Los Angeles club scene. There he formed The Rising Sons withRy Cooder Ed Cassidy Jesse Lee Kinkaid Gary Marker and Kevin Kelly. At the Whiskey A Go Go in Los Angeles The Rising Sons opened for Otis Redding Sam the Sham The Temptations and Martha and the Vandellas at The Trip. Taj also had the opportunity to hear meet and play with such blues legends as Howlin’ Wolf Muddy Waters Junior Wells Buddy Guy Louis and Dave Meyers Sleepy John Estes Yank Rachel Lightin’ Hopkins Bessie Jones the Georgia Sea Island Singers and Hammy Nixon.
Taj tapped these experiences on three hugely influential records: Taj Mahal (1967), The Natch’l Blues (1968) and Giant Step/De Old Folks at Home (1969). Drawing on all the musical forms he’d absorbed as a child these early albums showed signs of the musical exploration that would be Taj’s hallmark over the years to come. “I didn’t want to fall into the trap of complacency,” said Taj Mahal. “I wanted to keep pushing the musical ideas I had about jazz music from Africa and the Caribbean. I wanted to explore the connections between different kinds of music.”
In 1970 Taj traveled to Spain to have a well-deserved rest and vacation in the home of the guitar. He carved out his own musical niche with a string of adventurous recordings throughout the ’70s, including Happy Just to Be Like I Am (1971), Recycling the Blues and Other Related Stuff (1972), the Grammy-nominated soundtrack to the movie Sounder (1973), Mo’ Roots (1974), Music Fuh Ya’ (Musica Para Tu) (1977), and Evolution (The Most Recent) (1978).
Taj’s recorded output slowed considerably during the 1980s as he toured relentlessly and immersed himself in the music and culture of his new home in Hawaii. Still that decade saw the well-received Taj (1987) as well as the first three of his celebrated children’s albums.
Taj returned to a full recording and touring schedule in the 1990s including such projects as the musical scores for the Lanston Hughes/Zora Neale Hurston play Mule Bone (1991) and the movie Zebrahead (1992). Later in the decade Dancing the Blues (1993) Phantom Blues (1996) An Evening of Acoustic Music (1996) and the Grammy Award-winning Se?or Blues (1997) were both commercial and critical successes.
At the same time Taj continued to explore world music beginning with the aptly named World Music in 1993. He joined Indian classical musicians on Mumtaz Mahal in 1995; recorded Sacred Island a blend of Hawaiian music and blues with The Hula Blues in 1998; and paired with Malian kora player Toumani Diabate for Kulanjan in 1999.
Since 2000 Taj has released a second Grammy-winning album Shoutin’ in Key (2000) and recorded a second album with The Hula Blues 2003’s lush Hanapepe Dream.
Etta Baker With Taj Mahal came out in 2004. In 2005 he released Mkutano Meets the Culture Musical Club of Zanzibar. On this recording Taj Mahal took the blues to the mythical island of Zanzibar an East African island just off the coast of Tanzania. He collaborated with legendary local acts such as Culture Musical Club and Bikidude.
On February 2006 Taj Mahal was designated the “Official Blues Artist” of Massachusetts by Chapter 19 of the Acts of 26.
Maestro, released in 2008 was a landmark album where Taj Mahal explored some of his favorite musical traditions from various regions including the Mississippi Delta the Appalachian backwoods the African continent the Hawaiian Islands Europe and the Caribbean. The album features his daughter Deva Mahal, Latin rockers Los Lobos, Ben Harper, Jack Johnson, the Phantom Blues Band, Ziggy Marley Angelique Kidjo, Toumani Diabate and the New Orleans Social Club.
“With his record as with all my records I want people to roll back the rug and go for it,” said Taj about Maestro. “This record is just the beginning of another chapter one that’s going to be open to more music and more ideas. Even at the end of forty years in many ways my music is just getting started.”
Taj Mahal participated in the album True Blues, a 13-song live CD released in May 28, 2013 on Telarc. It was recorded at various venues throughout the United States including Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York True Blues explores and celebrates the blues and follows its rich history from the Mississippi delta of the early 1900s to the present day. The album includes performances by Corey Harris, Taj Mahal, Shemekia Copeland, Guy Davis, Alvin Youngblood Hart and Phil Wiggins.
On True Blues, Taj Mahal performs “Done Changed My Way of Living” with the help of his Taj Mahal Trio. Recorded at Ram’s Head On Stage in Annapolis Maryland Taj uses his trademark growl that’s reminiscent (either by design or by accident) of the great Howlin’ Wolf. The trio reemerges later for a rendition of “Mailbox Blues” that hints at the mid-20th century swing music that would eventually evolve from the blues tradition.
In 2012 he released the two disc set The Hidden Treasures of Taj Mahal 1969-1973 (Legacy, 2012).
In 2014, Taj Mahal received the Americana Music Association Lifetime Achievement Award.
A self-taught musician Taj plays more than 20 instruments, including ukulele, steel and dobro guitars.
In 2017, Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ released their first album as a duo, “TajMo” (Concord Records). “TajMo” includes original songs and covers, featuring cameos from Bonnie Raitt, Joe Walsh, Sheila E. and Lizz Wright. The album was self-produced by the duo and was recorded by Zach Allen, John Caldwell and Casey Wasner at Nashville’s Stu Stu Studio.
Taj Mahal (Columbia Records, 1968) The Natch’l Blues (Columbia Records, 1968) Giant Step/De Ole Folks at Home (Columbia Records, 1969) Happy Just to Be Like I Am (Columbia Records, 1971) Recycling The Blues & Other Related Stuff (Columbia Records, 1972) Sounder (original soundtrack) (Columbia Records, 1972) Oooh So Good ‘n Blues (Columbia Records, 1973) Mo’ Roots (Columbia Records, 1974) Music Keeps Me Together (Columbia Records, 1975) Satisfied ‘n Tickled Too (Columbia Records, 1976) Music Fuh Ya’ (Warner Bros. Records, 1976) Brothers (Warner Bros. Records, 1977) Evolution (Warner Bros. Records, 1977) Taj (Gramavision, 1987) Shake Sugaree (Music For Little People, 1988) Mule Bone (Gramavision, 1991) Like Never Before (Private Music, 1991) Dancing the Blues (Private Music, 1993) Mumtaz Mahal, with V.M. Bhatt and N. Ravikiran (Water Lily Acoustics, 1995) Phantom Blues (Private Music, 1996) Señor Blues (Private Music, 1997) Sacred Island, with The Hula Blues Band) (Private Music, 1998) Blue Light Boogie (Private Music, 1999) Kulanjan (with Toumani Diabaté) (Hannibal Records, 1999) Hanapepe Dream, with The Hula Blues Band (Hannibal Records, 2001) Mkutano Meets the Culture Musical Club of Zanzibar (Respect Records, 2005) Maestro (Heads Up International, 2008) Talkin’ Christmas, with Blind Boys of Alabama (Masterworks, 2014) TajMo, with Keb’ Mo’ (Concord Records, 2017)
Pata Negra was formed by the Amador brothers, Rafael and Raimundo, two wild Gypsy rockers from Seville. They were Flamenco’s number one rock fans. It could have been this feeling for rock that led Frank Zappa and Jerry Garcia to number themselves among their fans.
During Rafael and Raimundo’s teenage years, servicemen at a nearby US Air Force base in Morón de la Frontera provided an authoritative source for American rhythm and blues albums while their father and the rest of the Montoya family provided the deep schooling in Flamenco traditions.
The Amador brothers are two versatile guitarists who are just as comfortable playing blues with Flamenco guitars or Flamenco with electric guitars.
Pata Negra disbanded in 1991. Raimundo formed Flamenco rock band Arrajatabla in 1992, together with veteran rock guitarist Manglis.
Boubacar Traoré was born in Kayes, in 1942, in the Bambara region of Mali. His nickname, Kar Kar was given to him when he was the local school football (soccer) star. It means “the one who dribbles too much” in Bambara. Kar Kar is a self taught musician. He began to compose music at an early age, influenced by American blues and kassonké, a traditional music style from the Kayes region. Kar Kar’s older brother spent eight years in Cuba studying music and, once he returned to Mali, he helped his brother learn how to play the guitar.
In the early 1960s, Mali won its independence and the people of Mali awoke each morning to the sound of Kar Kar’s melancholic voice on the radio which sang of independence. Every person in Mali from his generation remembers having danced to his hits “Kar Kar Madison”, “Mali Twist” and “Kayes Ba,” in which he encouraged his fellow citizens to return and build the country.
Despite his radio success, Kar Kar could barely support himself. He earned a living as a tailor, shop keeper and agricultural agent. During the evenings he trained orchestras and sung for his friends.
After a twenty-year absence from the stage, in 1987, Boubacar Traoré was invited to perform for Malian TV and many people couldn’t believe their eyes. Unfortunately, two years later, life took a tragic turn when Boubacar’s wife, Pierrette, died. Dazed and heartbroken, Kar Kar left Mali to work in France. During the weekends he performed for his fellow immigrants until a British label, Stern’s, discovered him and produced two CDs. This led to European and North American tours.
Boubacar Traoré has risen from the ashes and still sings better than ever. Faithful to his roots, for the recording of his album “Sa Golo,” he sought out Baba Dramé, a childhood friend, in his hometown of Kayes, to accompany him on the calabash. On the title song “Sa Golo”, they are in the Kayes of the past where magicians in clanging outfits made the night air resonate.
The film, Je chanterai pour toi, about Boubacar’s life was released in 2001 and is now available on DVD.
After an erratic career with long periods of absence, it was at around seventy that Boubacar returned to the public eye in the company of Vincent Bucher, one of the finest French contemporary harmonica players. Vincent brought an international feel to Boubacar’s music, as demonstrated by two records – Mali Denhou (2011) and Mbalimaou (2015) – and many concerts throughout the world, accompanied by Alassane Samaké’s subtle calabash.
On “Dounia Tabolo” (2017), Boubacar decided to continue with this internationalization, bringing in musicians from the Southern States of the USA he had met on tour: Cedric Watson on violin and washboard, and Corey Harris on guitar. When he told them he wanted to add a cello and female voice to the album, Cedric Watson suggested Leyla McCalla.
Masaki Rush, wife of Otis Rush, announced that highly influential Chicago blues musician Otis Rush, died September 29, 2018 due to complications from a stroke which he initially suffered in 2003.
“GRAMMY winner Otis Rush was one of the most influential guitarists of the Chicago blues scene, best known for crafting the city’s “West Side Sound,” said Neil Portnow, President/CEO of the Recording Academy. “With his passionate vocals, unique performance style, and jazz-influenced guitar playing, Rush set the standard for blues musicians in Chicago and beyond.
He earned four GRAMMY nominations throughout his expansive career, and was awarded the Best Traditional Blues Album GRAMMY for Any Place I’m Going at the 41st Annual GRAMMY Awards. He will forever be remembered for transforming traditional blues into a more intensified sound, and influencing many of the rock and blues greats that followed him. Our thoughts go out to his family, friends, and colleagues during this difficult time.”
Ana Popovic is one of the finest guitarists in the blues scene. She’s a role model for women who want to pursue a career as a working musician. On like It on Top, she sings about women who have initiative.
The album is vocal oriented, with Ana Popovic on solo vocals and duets with Keb’ Mo’ and Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Although the guitar is Ana’s greatest skill, it is very subdued in many tracks.
Musically, Like It On Top features ear friendly songs with pop beats, R&B, funk and rock. The highlights are the more blues-oriented tracks, where the guitar stands out: “Last Thing I Do,” “Brand New Man,” “Matter Of Time,” and “Honey I’m Home.” The album was produced by Keb’ Mo’ and there is definitely a Keb’ Mo’ flavor in terms of arrangements throughout the recording. Guitarist Robben makes a guest appearance on “Sexy Tonight.”
Stringshot brings together three virtuoso musicians from various musical genres: slide guitarist and vocalist Roy Rogers (USA), guitarist and vocalist Badi Assad (Brazil) and violinist and Paraguayan harp player Carlos Reyes (Paraguay).
As you would expect, Blues and Latin combines these genres although it’s not a showcase for virtuosity. Instead, it’s an easy listening album featuring ear friendly pop, smooth jazz, blues and bossa nova.