In and Out of Africa
February 5, 2004
When Corey Harris goes to Africa, he isn’t just looking for a jam session, or to record with African musicians. In fact, while the singer-guitarist’s purpose in traveling to Africa has to do with music, his interest in the continent goes deeper than songs and sounds. In Africa, Harris finds history, culture, connections and understanding.
“As far as the history [of African music], it seems natural to me that if I’m going to play it, I want to know about it,” said Harris, who leads his 5×5 Band ” a trio with bassist Vic Brown and drummer John Gilmore ” to a concert at the Wheeler Opera House tomorrow, Feb. 7. “Music is knowledge itself.”
Harris first traveled to Africa in the early ’90s, after studying anthropology at Bates College in Maine. Those first two extended visits were spent in Cameroon, where he studied the culture, language and the music. A few years ago, Harris returned to Africa, this time to Mali, where he was a principal, quasi-journalistic figure in “Feel Like Going Home,” director Martin Scorsese’s segment of the 10-part PBS series, “The Blues.”
Six months after filming the documentary, Harris felt the pull of Africa again. He returned to Mail to record with guitarists Ali Farka Toure and Ali Magassa and percussionist Souleyman Kane. Those recordings were part of the recent CD “Mississippi to Mali,” which also includes contributions from Americans Bobby Rush on harmonica, Sam Carr on drums and members of the late Mississippian Otha Turner’s Rising Star Fife and Drum Band.
Harris found several good reasons to make “Mississippi to Mali.” For one, there was simply the experience of playing and recording music with new partners. And bigger than that was the chance to highlight the ties between the cultures of Africa and black America, which Harris finds deep and profound.
“The thing is that Africa is the root of the tradition, the root of the culture,” he said. “Whatever we black people in America have contributed, it’s a branch off of the tree from Africa. It’s not the same thing, but if there were no Africa, there is no black American culture.”
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Given his past, “Mississippi to Mali” seems like a point Harris would inevitably come to. His recording career has been a journey, a nonstop exploration of various regions and traditions. And it has always seemed to be about exploring more than the music. Music for Harris is the storehouse of culture, and the 34-year-old musician has shown a fierce determination to open that box of knowledge.
A Denver native, Harris first explored the music of the Mississippi Delta, where he was raised. His 1995 debut recording “Between Midnight and Day,” consisted mostly of interpretations of songs by the likes of Sleepy John Estes, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Robert Johnson, the kings of Delta acoustic blues. The album earned Harris the tag of a revivalist, but it was a label he would quickly transcend.
“Fish Ain’t Bitin,'” from 1997, expanded the terrain somewhat, as Harris wrote more of his own songs and added trombone and tuba to the mix for a more unique sound. The album reflected Harris’ move to New Orleans, where he lived for several years.
It was his next album, 1999’s “Greens From the Garden,” that signaled Harris’ broad vision for the music. With Jamal Millner, who would become Harris’ regular collaborator, on board as associate producer, Harris threw most every root into the pot. New Orleans funk, gospel, jazz and reggae were tossed into an exuberant, expansive album that dispelled any ideas that Harris was merely recycling the blues. He would take things even further on the highly regarded 2002 album “Downhome Sophisticate,” with its electric sounds, horns and organs and hints of soul, hip-hop, rock and Latin. The two albums showed how it was possible to take the roots and transform them into something modern and vital.
“I definitely want to know the history of what I’m doing,” said Harris. “But at the same time, I want to express the here and now.”
In making “Mississippi to Mali,” recorded in Niafunke, Mali; Mississippi, and Virginia, where Harris has lived since 1997, Harris said there was much common philosophical ground between himself and the African musicians. Though he had previously met them only briefly, recording together was a natural, and fruitful, experience.
“We all had respect for tradition, and an understanding of our differences,” said Harris. “The music that Ali Farka plays is contemporary. It may sound to us as ancient, which in a sense it is. But most of his songs he records are original songs.”
Perhaps just as significant was the shared musical ground. Harris says “there’s a lot of commonality” between American blues and the African styles he has explored. “It’s guitar music, rhythmic, groove-based on both sides. And as far as scales are concerned, it’s a pentatonic scale.
“But there are differences, especially different rhythms. American, American black music, has different rhythms. And the language of course is different.”
What might most connect African and American music is how both have been used to tell the story of a struggle. Neither Africans nor black Americans have had a particularly easy time these last few centuries. Both have turned to music to express their pain and hope. It is that adversity that has made the expression particularly powerful.
“All people around the world express themselves musically. It’s human nature to be musical,” said Harris. “And if they have a story to tell, you make a little more music.” Harris noted that strong musical traditions were not limited to Africa and the American South; Ireland is another example he gives where hard times have made for excellent music.
To Harris, the blues, like the more current form of hip-hop, is more than a musical expression. They are cultural forms, a way for a people to tell of their experiences, communal and individual.
Of the blues, Harris said, “There was a period in time when blacks expressed themselves in that way. That’s the roots of black Southern culture. The blues was more than music. It’s a language and outlook on life. I’ve met people who have the blues vibe ” and they don’t play music at all.”