Corey Harris

Mississippi to Mali

Street Date: November 18, 2003


In Martin Scorsese’s film, “Feel Like Going Home,” Corey Harris visits Niafunke, the Sahara Desert hometown of Malian master musician Ali Farka Touré, known around the world as the king of African blues. The encounter between Harris, a young, American blues revivalist, and Touré, a musician with a vast sense of cultural history, is as close as any of the films in Scorsese’s series, The Blues, comes to grappling with the African roots of blues music. But for Harris, that was just the beginning.

A few months later, Harris went back to Niafunke with his guitar, his longtime collaborator Jamal Millner, and a simple recording rig. “I wanted to go back,” says Harris, “because I felt like it was important to get with the music from over there, and to bring what little I know from our short tradition here as black people in America, and to put it back together and make a document of it. I’m not trying to say the blues all came from Mali. It’s just one of the strains, one of the really strong strains that make up black music in America. The point is you can take that music that we have over here, and it can go over there and be conversant.”

Harris’s new album, Mississippi to Mali, backs up this bold idea with inspirational new takes on classic songs. While Harris digs into Skip James’s “Special Rider Blues,” Touré gracefully weaves his way through, playing an ancient, one-string fiddle (njarka), and Souleymane Kane adds what Harris calls “the funk,” literally the slap and clop of West African calabash percussion. When the tables are turned with Touré playing guitar and singing a traditional song of the Bozo people, Harris proves no less conversant. Never mind the ancient roots of the blues; this is fresh, vibrant music of today bridging the realities of living traditions on two continents.

Eight of the fifteen tracks on Mississippi to Mali come from those sessions with Touré and two of his musicians in Niafunke. Four more tracks were recorded in Mississippi, where Harris worked with harmonica legend Bobby Rush and veteran blues drummer Sam Carr, and also with Otha Turner’s Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. Turner himself had died just a week before the sessions, so his 12-year old granddaughter, musical prodigy Shardé Thomas, played the fife and sang in his place on two tracks, adding a cross-generational element to this album’s ambitious cross-continental dialogue.

These far-flung musical encounters share a feeling of easy informality, by now a trademark of Harris’s work. Harris visited the musicians where they live, got comfortable with them, and rolled tape on the spot. Call this a set of new millennium field recordings. Also call it the most resonant unpacking of the mysterious, ancient history of African American music we’ve heard yet.

Born in Denver, Colorado in 1969, Harris always knew that Africa lay behind the music he grew up

loving-R&B, funk, reggae, blues-the whole ball of wax he thought of as “black music.” He went on to study anthropology at Bates College, and in the early ‘90s, made two extended trips to Cameroon. In Africa, Harris explored language, social reality and music in a complex, post-colonial setting, but as much as he loved looking outward, he came home determined to make his way as a blues musician. “Blues was what I understood deepest in myself,” says Harris, “because I grew up with that. My mom was of that generation. She lived in the depression in northeast Texas near Louisiana, so I always heard stories about it. It wasn’t a stretch for me to understand what was going on, even though it took me a while to be able to play it.”

Harris shook up the blues scene with his 1995 debut release, Between Midnight and Day, a masterpiece of rural blues exploration. Ever since then, he’s been finding ways to extend the journey, composing new songs, reinventing old ones, following his instincts fearlessly wherever they might lead. He has performed and recorded solo and acoustic, also with his driving, electric 5x5 Band, and with New Orleans pianist Henry Butler (on the album Vü Dü Menz in 2000). Harris’s Rounder Records debut, Downhome Sophisticate (2002) found him stretching out as a songwriter, merging blues, African pop, rock and electronica in one of the year’s most brilliant and original releases.

On Mississippi to Mali, his sixth album, Harris returns to his roots, but with a whole new spin. “I really approached this as a student,” he says. “I was going to go out and learn something, and deepen my understanding of what it is I do, and why I’m doing it.” Harris had been planning to do an album of duets with blues elders. But after he accepted an invitation to visit Mali, and played a show with the great guitarist and troubadour Boubacar Traoré, he got to thinking about collaborating with musicians over there. Then the Scorsese film came along, and Harris saw a way to bring the two ideas together. “The record was an outgrowth of my desire to collaborate with someone, and actually learn, and then to bring something that they could value as well. That was nice because the styles are so different in so many ways, but then there’s this kernel of similarity at the core.”

Harris recognized that kernel of shared experience the first time he heard a recording of Ali Farka Touré. By the time he sat down to jam with Touré a decade later, Harris just knew what repertoire would work. Skip James’s unusually mournful sound had always seemed to contain something ancient for Harris, and the Malian musicians easily found themselves in James’s “Special Rider Blues” and “Cypress Grove.” Robert Petway’s “Catfish Blues”-said to have influenced the young John Lee Hooker, and the model for Muddy Waters’s “Rolling Stone”-was also a natural choice, and the traditional “.44 Blues” makes a particularly satisfying connection with Souleyman Kane’s funky calabash. Harris didn’t want to belabor anything-nothing clever, contrived, or cutting edge-just easy spontaneity.

“There was no rehearsal,” says Harris. “We just sat with Ali. We were there for five days and we got with him on three days for two hours each day. That was it. And before that, it was all just chillin’ and eating and hanging at his crib.” The wild card here was the music Touré would contribute, but once again, despite the desert heat, nobody broke a sweat. “There’s some repertoire they played for me in the key of E which sounds just like Muddy Waters,” says Harris. “There’s one tune called ‘Rokie.’ You’d never know it’s from Mali if you heard it, and they’re telling me it’s a traditional Tuareg tune.”

For the Mississippi recordings, Harris went to songs that for him represent the core of the blues tradition in America. He stomps through “Big Road Blues” with Bobby Rush and Sam Carr, and brews up a one-of-a-kind rendition of “Station Blues” with Shardé Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. Next to Thomas’s soulful, 12-year-old voice, Harris sounds like an old man, and the blend is pure magic against the syncopated, rolling rhythms of the drums. The moment Harris learned about Otha Turner’s death, he thought of including Shardé. “She’s real gifted,” he says, “real calm in her manner, very well brought up, intelligent, definitely someone to watch. From what I hear she also plays jazz flute, she reads, she plays piano, she sings, and she plays all the percussion.” On Mississippi to Mali, Harris joins in on a performance of Shardé’s signature tune, “Back Atcha.”

Harris rounds out the album with three compositions of his own, including a down and dirty blues called “Mr. Turner,” pumped out with Bobby Rush on harmonica and Sam Carr on drums. Mississippi to Mali is dedicated to Otha Turner, and this tune makes it official. “Charlene” is a song Harris wrote and sings in French, using a guitar tuning he picked up by watching a guitarist from the West African Mande griot tradition, and “Coahoma,” the picking, sliding guitar instrumental that opens the album, is a song inspired by trains and named for the Mississippi county where Harris wrote it. Harris ends the album with a solo performance of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground.” Book-ending all these extraordinary encounters with two solo pieces, Harris reminds us that he carries the long history of blues-that venerable kernel of culture-within him wherever he goes. And the journey continues.

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