A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
January 12, 2006
You hear a stringed instrument — an oud? — noodling some vaguely Middle Eastern melody. Percussion is starting to bubble, with some swirling notes of a flute counterpart. What sounds like a zephyr starts strumming a steady rhythm. The chord changes seem familiar as the bass comes in. Now wait a minute ... is that a harmonica?
Indeed it is. And by the time the electric guitar joins in, it’s obvious that you’re listening to an instrumental version of Canned Heat’s “On the Road Again.”
It seems that the blues, that basic building block of American music, has been on the road in some unexpected corners of the world.
Fooling around the Web site of Calabash Music recently, I came across some examples of musicians worlds away from the Mississippi Delta, across the ocean from the South Side of Chicago, playing good old American blues while adding elements of music from their own cultures.
The fact that folks from faraway lands are inspired by American blues shouldn’t be surprising, really. Countless African dance bands have been influenced by American jazz and soul. And any serious student of Jamaican music knows that the sounds of New Orleans — Professor Longhair, Fats Domino — helped spark reggae.
And don’t forget the British blues scene of the early 1960s. There the musicians seemed intent on slavishly recreating Howlin’ Wolf’s growl, Robert Johnson’s wail, and B.B. King’s guitar licks. But when some of these imitators started branching off and adding their own ideas, they turned into the Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, the Animals, the Yardbirds, etc., and created music that shook the world.
What I like about the international blues I just stumbled across is how the musicians make the blues their own. The “local” elements — the ouds, the gypsy violins — show how the old voodoo spirit that is the blues can look pretty spiffy in exotic clothes.
Here’s a look at some of those world blues albums:
* Sair Zamanlar by Istanbul Blues Kumpanyasi. This Turkish band started out in 1993 when American-music aficionados Sarp Keskiner and Salih Nazim Peker decided to mix the ethnic music of their native land with blues, soul, and blues-based psychedelia.
As showcased on its version of “On the Road Again,” Istanbul Blues Kumpanyasi includes Western accompaniment (guitar, bass, harmonica) along with Turkish instruments.
There’s a definite Captain Beefheart feel on many tunes, including “Biskotin,” where a slide guitar plays against the buzzing woodwind.
Most of the vocals here are in Turkish, though “Whiskey-Headed Woman No. 3” is in English. I just think it’s amazing that a song called “Whiskey-Headed Woman” could come out of a predominantly Islamic nation.
Kumpanyasi is wildest on its nine-minute workout “Hüseyni Twist,” which incorporates elements of fuzz-tone surf music — Dick Dale could work wonders on this song.
The title song is a slow, grooving, flute-led excursion that might remind some of Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy.”
Then they get mellow on “Dürüst Duman,” a flute-led soft funk instrumental that might remind American listeners of Herbie Mann.
*Plum Brandy Blues by Nightlosers. From the great nation of Romania comes this down-home stomping blues band led by a film director named Hano Hoffer.
Unlike the Istanbul Blues Kumpanyasi, most of the Nightlosers’ songs are sung in English. Not only that, but they are titles that any American bar band should recognize: “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Stormy Monday Blues,” “Trouble in Mind,” even “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Goodnight Irene.”
But what distinguishes the Nightlosers’ music is the domination of the gypsy violin on just about every song.
Nightlosers have not only musicianship but a wicked humor as well. In their version of “Everyday I Have the Blues,” the violin trades lengthy solos with some stringed instrument that sounds like a hammer dulcimer. Then there’s a solo for someone on bird whistles. Later there’s a jam with the fiddle, bird whistles, and cuckoo noises.
The most unrecognizable song here is “Mystery Train,” which starts out with a violin and woodwind duet that sounds like some pastoral Romanian melody that picks up steam before melting into a down-and-dirty blues.
But perhaps the most crazy and majestic moment is the cover of Bo Diddley’s “Pretty Thing” that sounds like a mad Arabian tango.
*Calabash Blues by Markus James. James is an American singer, born in Virginia, living in San Francisco, who has dedicated much of his career to going to Mali and recording his original blues with traditional music of that African country.
It’s not really an original idea. More than 10 years ago, Ry Cooder collaborated with Malian singer Ali Farka Toure and his band for the album Talking Timbuktu. More recently young bluesman Corey Harris recorded with Toure in Mali for Harris’ 2003 album Mississippi to Mali.
The idea of an American “bringing the blues” to an African country doesn’t interest me nearly as much as Turks and Romanians taking up the music themselves.
So about the only thing Calabash Blues has going for it is the music.
It’s dark, brooding, mysterious music, with James’ growling voice and spooky whispers intertwining with a Malian njarka fiddle, the clacking of the calabash percussion (played by Hamma Sankare of Toure’s band), and James’ own atmospheric guitars, both electric and acoustic. It might remind you of Otis Taylor. Maybe even a little of Dr. John’s early gris-gris sound.
Hear this music: Sunday night on Terrell’s Sound World, KSFR, 90.7 FM. The show starts at 10 p.m., the international blues segment at 11 p.m.
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