HOTSEAT- Roots music: Harris explores African beginnings
Mississippi To Mali was easily one of Corey Harris's most ambitious projects. The 2003 record was an outgrowth of his involvement in a Martin Scorsese documentary that featured the New Orleans-born blues guitarist collaborating with several top Malian musicians.
The project paired the slave music that has evolved into a quintessential American art form with the ancient musical traditions from which it came. Things didn't go so well at first.
"The record company actually originally didn't want to put it out, and it was quite a fight, because the sound quality wasn't up to their standards," says Harris. "I had to go back and clean up a lot of that noise. It's a field recording, recorded very inexpensively."
But the disc was subsequently released to widespread critical acclaim.
Although Mississippi To Mali came out several years ago and Harris followed it up last year with the decidedly more domestic Daily Bread– complete with full pre-production efforts, much to the label's relief– his reverence for traditional West African music isn't yet spent. Lately, his interest has been further stoked by the visit of Guinean guitarist Mohamed Kouyate, who arrived stateside in early March and began playing shows with Harris shortly thereafter. The duo will likely continue to perform until Kouyate's departure in late May.
"We've been doing a lot of jazz, a lot of reggae, and a lot of Malian traditional griot music, done in an electric way," says Harris. "When I first heard him, he had never been to Mississippi, but he could play Mississippi blues perfectly."
Naturally, they took a trip to the Delta. "What has been most interesting to me is seeing his reaction to the history of America and the history of Charlottesville," says Harris. "I was surprised about the things that he did and did not know about the history of black people in America– slavery and segregation and so on."
Harris describes taking Kouyate to visit the storefront on which Emmett Till was standing when he whistled at a white woman, leading to his brutal lynching by white murderers whose subsequent acquittal sparked the national civil rights movement in the 1960s.
That event still weighs heavily on Harris's mind, even though the trip is over. "Even Charlottesville is a plantation town," Harris says. "People don't talk about it; they really like to revere one side of it– Thomas Jefferson and all that– but they have yet to deal with who really built this town."
Harris and Kouyate's joint performance at the Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar late last month briefly opened a window into the interchange, with Harris dedicating a song to recently deceased Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure while Kouyate zipped around his own fretboard with slick jazz licks copped from George Benson.
Harris won't take credit for that one. "I'm really along for the ride," he says.
Age: I am 37.
Why here? Sent by Jah
What's worst about living here? Widespread denial of Charlottesville's true history (slavery, Jim Crow)
Favorite hangout? Home
Most overrated virtue? That I look "just like" Scotty, Whit, Bif, Darrell, or Abba
People would be surprised to know? I renovate houses for sale (check out 807 Orangedale Ave.).
What would you change about yourself? Nothing
Proudest accomplishment? Working as a contributing writer for Living Blues magazine while the C-ville editor rejected my application and suggested I deliver papers for them instead
People find most annoying about you? That I know that I am not annoying
Whom do you admire? Walter Rodney
Favorite book? And the Truth Shall Set You Free (David Icke)
Subject that causes you to rant? Thomas Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, Andrew Jackson, George Washington, the flag, slavery, Trail of Tears, The War... don't get me started!
Biggest 21st century thrill? Impending oil crash (more bike riders)
Biggest 21st century creep-out? Impending oil crash (economic collapse)
What do you drive? Ford Van/Honda Accord
In your car CD player right now? Burning Spear
Next journey? Casablanca, Morocco (Gnawa Festival)
Most trouble you've ever gotten in? I didn't get caught!
Regret? New Orleans will never be the same.
Favorite comfort food? Coconut rice, spinach, curried channa
Always in your refrigerator? Fresh papaya and soy milk
Must-see TV? Tuned out
Favorite cartoon? Maus (Art Spiegelman)
Describe a perfect day: Read Psalm 68, practice guitar scales, take a long walk, cook an Italian meal, kick it with the kids
Walter Mitty fantasy? I don't know who he is....
Who'd play you in the movie? Dave Chappelle
Most embarrassing moment? Realizing my zipper was down for a whole gig
Best advice you ever got? Never give up.
Favorite bumper sticker? "If you can read this, thank a teacher"
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO