Monday, June 1, 2015

Excerpt from Jahtigui: the Life and Music of Ali Farka Toure, 'Defenders of the Faith (pp.10-14)

It is 2002 and I am in Niafunke to record an album called “Mississippi to Mali”, a collaboration with Ali Farka. It is March, one of the hottest months of the year. One day I decide to take a walk around town after eating lunch. It is a dry, cloudless day. The unpaved streets explode in clouds of ne dust every time a car, motorcycle or donkey cart passes by. I can taste it as it mixes with the scent of cooking from unseen, mud-brick courtyards and distant brush res. I see the tents of local Tuaregs, their occu- pants resting languidly in the shade. A small assortment of goats, chickens and donkeys amble about, going nowhere fast. It is as if they too are trying to preserve their energy as they navigate the desert sand under the hot sun. I walk into a small store owned by Tuareg merchants. There are two young men inside, one behind the counter of the sparsely decorated interior. One is dressed in the tradi- tional blue turban and long boubou, while the other wears a western collared shirt and pants. They look like they are related, with their olive skin, straight brown hair and seri- ous, somber faces. This store is housed inside an old ship- ping container. I look on the walls and see the basic staples of canned foods, personal care products, simple household items and the ubiquitous boxes of imported Chinese ‘gun- powder’ green tea. There is even a brand, “Tuareg” which comes in a small, green, cube-shaped box. The drawing on the outside depicts two blue-turbaned men mounted on camels with a panorama of endless dunes stretching out behind them. On the box it says “qualite superior...produit de chine.” 

The young men give an understated response to my greetings, their eyes showing no sign of pretense or smile. They would win any staring contest with their stoic demeanor. They are matter-of-fact in their interactions, showing no outward motion or unnecessary chatter.  Looking me over, they ask where I am from. I tell them I live in Virginia, USA and they are cordial but uninterested. There is one long swathe of midnight-black fabric. They catch me looking at it with some interest. I don’t even have to point to it. Within seconds it is unfold- ed before me to examine and I begin to negotiate a price. Seeing that I am a foreigner, they give an extremely high rst price, an amount that is much more than the average Malian would imagine paying. I do my best to bring them down, with little success. These are typical of the turbans seen throughout the desert, worn not only by Tuaregs but also Songhai, Peul, Bambara and other ethnic groups for protection against the harsh elements and for warmth in the cold desert night. As we negotiate back and forth I see another advantage to the turbans: they cover the entire face except the eyes, hiding emotion and expression. This makes the deal less friendly and more like straight business.

In Africa, negotiation is a game played every day, like poker. Also like poker, the ability to hide one’s emo- tions during the game is a prime advantage. I haven’t made any real progress negotiating with these stone-faced brethren. As I am about to pay, I hear a familiar voice at the doorway. It is Ali Farka. He is all smiles and warmth and greets us all. He enters the small, dusty shop, immediately buys the black turban and gives it to me as a gift. His very presence has changed the mood inside this tiny shop. I see that the Tuareg brother wearing the tur- ban has unwrapped it, showing his face. Both he and his brother are now grinning happily. I have never seen such a quick transition from stone-cold poker face to warm smiles as I did on that hot day. That day I learned that there was something special about Ali Farka Toure in the way he could make people comfortable. He did it with humor, simplicity, kindness, and a spirit of comraderie that you could hear in his voice when he spoke. He was both noble and a man of the people. He didn’t like fancy things nor was he ostentatious. He lived a simple life and he worked hard for his family, his culture, his community and his na- tion. The proof is in his music and the power of the words that he sings.

I recall a hot day in the courtyard of the Hotel Campe- ment, owned by Ali and operated by his cousin Berte Toure. I am here with a recording engineer who has traveled with me from Virginia. We sit on white plastic chairs listening to hip-hop on a portable cassette player with three young Bambara men from Niafunke. There is a doorway to the courtyard of the hotel in front of which people on the street would pass to and fro. A few passersby stop and reverse to get another curious look at these two Black dreads from the USA bobbing their heads in unison with the local youth. The song, “Oochie Wally”, by Nas’ brother Jungle, is a hit in the US. But hearing it in a remote desert town on the banks of the river Niger redenes the meaning of ‘hit’. The doorway is like a window to the outside world of the dusty streets of Niafunke. Watching the doorway as the world passes by gives us a brief snapshot in time as people, goats, donkeys and chickens walk back and forth. Small brown and multicolored margoya lizards scurry across the dry ground and on the walls, stopping to do push-ups as they inate air sacs in their throats. A slightly-built Tuareg man wearing ip-ops and a blue turban with traditional shirt and pants stops in the doorway and then comes back a few minutes later to get a second look. He walks into the courtyard, greets everyone with one, quiet word, and sits down. This Tuareg brother is checking us out.

The desert sun beams down on us all. Intense brown eyes look us over from behind the Turban that cover his young but weathered face. He sits quietly for awhile, observing the strangers who have come from so far away. Then he begins to bob his head to the boom-bap just like the rest of us. No manual necessary. After a while he says another quiet word and exits the doorway through which he had come. Hip-hop is big everywhere you go in Mali, just as it has taken over the rest of the globe. Here, this Black art revolution from the south Bronx is loved by the youth like a long lost twin brother. Africa is the cradle of the beat and the spoken word, and hip-hop is but the latest manifestation of the ancient tradition of rhythm and rhyme. It comes from a different recent history, as the culmination of Africans’ exodus from the Jim Crow and lynch- ings of the the southern states to the discrimination, crime, and economic desolation of the inner cities. But it can still come home to Africa and be recognized like a prodigal son. Africans recognize that Black music is African at its core; they love the music regardless of style or national origin. In the near future this music will be under attack in the land of its birth. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Sitting in First Class with Nina Simone

It was 1996 and I was on tour with Koko Taylor, Kenny Neal, and Lonnie Brooks in Europe. One day we all boarded a plane in Marseilles, France to fly to Paris. I noticed a regal, older African woman in traditional dress made from beautiful indigo blue fabric and head wrap  sitting in first class as I made my way back to my seat in coach. She had a strong spiritual force about her that I could feel.  When I got in the back of the plane there were no seats left. Just then a flight attendant tells me that there is only one seat left in the plane but it is in first class...and it is next to Nina Simone! The flight attendant says she would have to ask Ms. Simone if it would be alright.  So we walked back up to first class and the flight attendant explained the situation to her.  Her reply: "It depends on how charming you are." She smiled at me and I was a little bit in shock. It turns out that she was the royal elder that I sighted upon boarding. I sat down and it was immediately like family.  We drank orange juice together and for the next hour and a half she told me stories about being the only sister in Julliard way back in the fifties and the struggles she went through to gain respect. She said that she practiced so hard to become a great pianist.  She talked about knowing Michael Jackson (she could impersonate his voice very well) when he was a little boy and her family roots in South Carolina. Her daddy was Gullah ('geechee').  She was funny, warm, beautiful, loud, charming and was not afraid to curse out loud or sing when the story required it. She was down.  She was real.   She had been living near Marseilles, France and was on her way back to the States to visit her brother in New York. The most amazing thing about this encounter is that when we were about to land in Paris we came very close to hitting another plane that was taking off from the same runway. I looked out the window and could see the other plane directly below us.  It was close!  Our plane's pilot had to make a sharp turn and a steep climb to avoid a disaster. Everybody, even the flight attendants looked scared shitless. Not Mama Nina...she kept talking to me like we were sitting in the park on a sunny day. She ain't skip a beat! I will always remember our Black Empress of song...Nina Simone. Respect!

My First Tour With B.B. King

When I first went on the road with BB King, it was like a dream come true. That first tour was in the winter, and I remember it was COLD and we covered a lot of miles. It was me, and guitarist Jamal Milner in his Toyota pickup truck, playing big and small cities in the Midwest...seemed like the whole Mississippi valley on both sides. It was a real race everyday to keep up with the big tour buses. We ate freeze dried noodles for lunch and had one hot meal at the show, for which we were very grateful.  Every night after the show we would talk with BB in his dressing room and it was just like family. He would tell  stories about his cousin Bukka White, and going to New York for the first time. He had the same manager as Louis Armstrong and could do a perfect impression of the way Satchmo talked. He said Satchmo cooked red beans and rice right there in the dressing room backstage!

He also talked about his first tour, where he and the entire band used Greyhound buses to get around. If they couldn't find a Black hotel, or some friends along the way, they would have to just wait until the next bus came along. It was not safe for Black people in the south and one could easily get killed over nothing in a little town. If you were hungry, you couldn't just go to any restaurant. You had to find a Black neighborhood or you wouldn't eat. My mother would also tell me  stories about being scared to stop in towns, in a time before highways, where Black people could be lynched and nobody could do anything about it. I think BB knew that we were racing just to make the show time and keep up with the buses. This was his way of letting us know that we should be thankful that we could just check into any hotel and go to sleep without worrying about being terrorized, arrested, or worse. This ancestor was one of many who paved the way for the rest of we Black blues children, players of all types of music! They all struggled so that we might rise! So we give thanks....This is his first bus that he bought after making it big.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Can Black People Write About the Blues?

When I published the last blog, "Can White People Play the Blues?", the reactions were immediate, varied and extreme.  What was most interesting to me is the range of reactions of those (mostly white) people who were clearly offended by the mere question.  When the blues was a young art form, there was no need to ask the question, since very few white people valued Black music or were even aware of it.  Fast forward one hundred years later to the present and we see white people all over the globe playing blues.  There are thousands who play it very well and earn good money doing it.  However there are also many Black, white and others, fans of the art form for whom the Black expression of the blues is preferred.  The essay I wrote addressed what many in the blues music industry did not want to talk about, at least publicly.  As usually happens when one addresses the elephant in the room, a host of other issues came up which provided a window into the thinking of those who left their comments.  Here I will discuss some these reactions, the issues that they raise and what this means in terms of perceptions of Black people, their history and culture. 

Right off the bat, several readers felt free to comment on the post without even reading beyond the first paragraph, saying that it was 'racist' to even ask such a question.  After reading the hundreds of comments (positive and negative), I was reminded of the reaction to an editorial from 1990 in Guitar Player magazine written by Lawrence Hoffman, a white music professor and music critic.  A few years later music and literary critic Paul Garon wrote an essay, "White Blues", which explores the outraged reactions to Hoffman's editorial.  The reactions to my essay were very similar.  He observed that most readers took one of the following positions: 1) It's racist to speak on the issue or hold a position that goes against the majority. 2) Suffering is universal and whites suffer, too, e.g. those whose parents died in concentration camps, those who grew up poor, or those who have struggled in any number of ways.  3) Ability is beyond racial barriers, and that music 'has no color.'  4) Black people didn't want the blues anymore (because they don't play it) so now whites and others have come to save it from obsolescence or extinction.  In their eyes, they are the ones 'keeping the blues alive.' 

Many white people's reactions to my essay were angry, fervent objections to my line of reasoning and even questioning my upbringing and my 'right' to play the blues.   One wrote that the author had a privileged upbringing and was raised by a white family, which I found very amusing.  Another commentator wrote that the author of the essay was an 'asshat'(!).  He went on to write that "any style of music can be played by someone from outside of that region and to expert levels."  His indignation was strange to me because that was one of my points, clearly stated in the essay.  Many white people already play the blues very well, and for certain historical reasons they did not need to ask anyone's permission to enjoy the music.  It was never written that white people were not 'allowed' to play the blues.  Yet, this is how many, in their defensiveness, interpreted the essay.  Even if someone were to demand that everyone fill out permission forms, such an exercise would be as silly and pointless as it would be impossible.  The point still remains that playing and singing are different. There is a difference between expert playing and mimicking the vocal styles of a culture, trying to sing 'black.'  One is much easier than the other.  So what is the solution?  Play music but respect the origin and don't deny the history.  Be yourself and express yourself.  You can't run from who you are; your individual, family and cultural history matter.  The ancients taught man to 'know thyself'.  An unnamed old bluesman once put it another way, "whoever you is, be dat."  Play what you want, but be who you are.  And don't forget to respect the source.

The essay was not about granting anyone permission to play anything and it acknowledges that there are many non-Black performers who play well in the style.  What it does say is that heritage and culture do matter in music.  These things can not be faked.  We bring who ever we are to the music that we play.  That is reality.  Music is not some magical realm where we leave our identity, our histories and unique experiences at the door and where culture doesn't matter.  This means that although he is a superb guitarist, the music of Eric Clapton will never be the same as B.B. King.  This is not to dismiss Sir Eric, nor any of the other non-Black guitar players who have found a musical home in the blues.  It is saying that since their experience is different, the music they make will also be different.  Playing in a musical style from a particular culture, even at expert levels, will never be the same as an expert player who is from the culture.  Moreover, as the blog points out, singing well in a musical style from a different culture is another matter entirely.  Many want to mimic Black accents and intonation in an attempt to sound 'authentic' (whatever that word means).  The point is that culture as well as individual and collective experience do matter.  Of course, many pointed out the few Black players who play country or rock music as if to say this is the same scenario.  Shouldn't they be asking for permission?  They seem to forget that both of these styles of music are also built upon the blues!  In any case, I doubt we will ever witness a scenario where Black country musicians rise up in arms because someone in Nashville says country is white music.  Why?  Their participation in the music is not dependent on denying the history of the music.  They neither gain power by denying the history nor do they lose power by admitting its origin.  This means that although the great Charley Pride is an amazing singer, he can not seek to control or define the genre for white people.  Black audiences do not support country music, Black promoters, agents, music writers and musicians have no control over the genre, nor do they want any.

In fact, there were many positive and thoughtful comments and inbox messages from those who took the time to read the entire essay.  I also received several defensive and angry inbox messages on Facebook where people told me their life stories as if to prove they had a right to play the music.  A frequent attitude was 'how dare you tell me I can't play the blues' as they detailed the suffering that they or their people had endured in life.  It was almost like they had to prove that they met a quota.  One commentator said the entire article was 'racist garbage'; 'ignorant' and 'woefully out of touch' were also words used to describe the essay.  A blues lover in Eastern Europe wrote that the article was 'pathetic.'  Yet another defender of white blues rights said that the entire piece was about 'hating whitey' and that I was a 'meathead.'  One said plainly that I was a 'bigoted asshole'.  Yet another irate reader said my essay was as 'racist as a Klansman.'  Adam Gussow, a well known white blues musician and academic penned a lengthy open letter online that strenuously refuted my essay and then proceeded to suppose that I was a bitter, lost and  'angry' Black 'separatist' who is on a 'jihad' (his words).  In short, some people -- white people -- took it very, very personally.  I had touched a hot nerve!  

What was interesting is that in a country that is supposedly delighting in being 'post-racial' (rampant police murder and abuse notwithstanding), almost all of the negative responses and promoters of white blues came from white readers.  All of the insults and knee-jerk claims of 'racism' came from white males.  Out of hundreds of comments, no black people objected, save for one, who was actually a very proud champion of white blues players.  This is the irony that no one seemed to notice: white men calling a Black man a racist for writing about white people playing Black music.  It is still viewed as extremely provocative -- even threatening -- for a Black musician to declare that Black music and culture is a reality and to address the history of the music from a Black perspective.  But does this same standard apply to musicians from other ethnic groups?  I don't think so.  It is not seen as threatening when a European declares that opera is European music.  It is a statement of fact.  When a white Appalachian musician declares bluegrass to be white music he is not wrong.  (Even though Bill Monroe was heavily influenced by Black music).  In both examples the music comes out of a particular culture and history, and if they talk about the music from their perspective it is accepted as normal.  There is no threat.  Why?  These musics did not come from an enslaved people and this makes the history attached to the music is easier to deal with.  The simple conclusion is that even in 2015, many would rather enjoy the blues on their own terms without having to deal with the history.  Moreover, many white people are tired of talking about 'race', which is seen as either a Black problem, preoccupation or obsession.  It is uncomfortable because it threatens their privilege, which is still based upon skin color and ethnicity in a world where Black is always bad and white is necessarily always good.  Denial is more comfortable.  That is until someone brings up the issue.  However, the issue will always come up…there is nowhere to hide from it.

I have learned a lot, in a short amount of time, about white people's often unspoken perceptions and assumptions of Black people and culture in America today.  "Blues is Black Music! Can White People Play the Blues?", this simple statement of musical origin  (Daniel Atkinson calls it Black Sovereignty) coupled with a straightforward questionhas rubbed salt in the always festering wounds of American slavery, racism, white supremacy, and the widespread white denial of the effect of these historic realities on Black people and their culture.  Indeed, many responded as if they had been personally offended or threatened.  Apparently, it is racist (for Black people, in this case) to talk about race, history, culture or to even mention any differences between groups of people.  The intensity of the reactions was as if they thought someone was going to come and 'steal' back their blues to return it to Black folk.  Common sense tells us that this is impossible.  So why do certain people come to talk about music as if it is real estate or jewelry -- property?  How does a claiming an origin become a threat, a political statement that moves people to the point of anger?  The short answer is that America has never dealt with slavery and its legacy, preferring to coast along in denial.  Along with the legacy of slavery is the deep need to control or monitor what Black people say or do.  The unspoken rule is that Black people can speak about Black music but only in a way that is not uncomfortable to white people.  Any discussion that becomes uncomfortable evinces either outright denial, feigned innocence, ignorance, aggressive personal attacks and insults, even threats of a loss of livelihood in the industry.

This episode has raised some interesting questions:  Who defines who is Black?  Obviously, Black people do.  At the same time, however, many white people have their own criteria of what it means to be Black.  It doesn't seem to matter that Black people have already defined it for themselves.  We already know what blackness means to white people who are raised in a society that devalues blackness are worships everything white.  Frequent objections to the essay simplistically pointed out that 'music has no color.'   But isn't blackness more than just a matter of skin color?  It is also a heritage, a history, a way of eating, speaking, fighting, loving, cooking, worshipping and making music.  Where do Black people have to be born to be considered 'real' Black blues players?  What types of Black people are 'allowed' to play the blues, according to white blues fans? Are white people now the sole authority on the blues, now that we Black folk have 'given it up'?  Can Black lovers of country music claim to be the sole authorities on country music now that Nashville has sold its soul and ignores traditional country music?  No…  Yet the same people who claim the power to define what is and is not blues will say that it belongs to everybody and that 'nobody owns' the music.  Why is this so? Who left and made them in charge?

Many of the negative reactions (there were many positive messages) avoided considering the question at all, instead questioning the author's 'authenticity'.  Detractors who took this approach pointed out that being raised in the suburbs in Colorado (as was the author) somehow disqualifies a Black person from being able to claim the blues as his heritage, and that no young Black person today knew about picking cotton.  One proudly stated that Robert Cray was as 'black' as he is (strange, since he was born in Georgia).  My good friend Taj Mahal was raised in Massachusetts. Is that not 'blues' enough?  It actually never occurred to me that being born and raised in suburban Denver to parents from Texas and Kentucky meant that I couldn't play blues.  Growing up among elders, going to Texas for funerals and family reunions, church, house parties, cook-outs, and hearing B.B. King play when I was 11 years old…eating the food Black folk from the south love to eat (in abundance!)…this is where my blues comes from.  I grew up hearing stories from my mother and stepfather about the terrorism and oppression of the south and the racism they experienced since migrating to Colorado.  There was an uncle who was lynched, a grandfather who escaped from a Mississippi labor camp, and aunts who worked as cleaning ladies for nearly their entire lives.  I was raised by a single mother who taught school for a living (hardly the road to riches or middle class comfort) and who instilled in her two children the importance of education and service to others.  Her father was a country school principal who was secretly the 'Lone Star State' correspondent for the Chicago Defender (in a time when having a copy of the newspaper could get a Black person killed).  When I was younger, I spent a good deal of time with my two great aunts as well with as the woman whom I called grandma, a sweet elder lady from St. Catherine, Jamaica named Mrs. Clara Harris.  The love, stories and faith of these mighty Black men and women nourished me like home cooked food.  If I am honoring my family, my ancestors, and the stories that I have been told through the music, then why should I care what a stranger thinks about my 'authenticity'?  I am what I am.  You can move to the suburbs, but you will still be Black.  Isn't it great?  Blackness is forever adaptable, no matter where it is found.  As the proverb tells us, "The roots of a tree cast no shadow."

Another amusing opinion that came to light is that Black people who are not from Jamaica should not play reggae.  This came as a retort to the question in the title.  I find this point interesting and ignorant at the same time.  Why?  Reggae has always been a music of Black liberation.  And even though Jamaicans have and continue to define the art form, it does not only speak to Jamaican or West Indian reality, but to the reality of Afrikan people around the world.  Reggae remains a Black music that speaks to the historical reality and liberation of Afrikan people.  Literally millions of Black people in Afrika, the Americas, Europe and around the world play reggae not because they think they are Jamaican, but because the music speaks about the Black experience, 'the story that has never been told.'  Reggae music is a musical and political force across today's Afrika and artists such as Tiken Jah Fakoly and Teddy Afro are the proof.  It honors the ancestors and those who died in the struggle.  It calls out wicked governments and corporations that continue to oppress the downtrodden.  Black men from Papua New Guinea to Philadelphia use reggae to sing about their lives as Afrikan people struggling against unjust systems.  But here again we see people who are not Black aggressively applying their standards to Black people, defining who is and who is not Black enough by some litmus test that only they control.  Those who will not conform to these standards are treated like a threat and are isolated.  To a white (or other) person who is ignorant to the connection between Afrikans in the diaspora, someone who has never lived and traveled in Afrika, the idea that Black people share common culture and struggles around the world is no doubt difficult to understand.  The truth is that the Afrikan diaspora is real to millions of Black people around the globe who want to maintain their identity by defining themselves, for themselves.  And the best part about it is that no one is waiting on Europeans or anyone else to do it for us.

Isn't it the highest form of arrogance for a white person (or anyone else) to tell any Black person about how they should be Black?  Imagine myself, a Black man, telling a Chinese man that he is not Chinese enough by my standards because he wasn't born in Beijing!  I would be laughed at, and rightly so.  Actually, I got a good laugh at several of the responses to the essay.  Obviously, there are quite a few people who love Black music but have no particular love for the people that make the music.  Moreover, while loving the blues, this music that 'belongs' to 'everybody', some listeners somehow manage to deny the history of the people that made it.  But who does this 'belongs to everybody' attitude serve?  It doesn't serve the Black musicians, who must vie for an ever shrinking piece of the economic pie.   This is especially true of those few Black blues elders who are still playing the music.  The reality is that white people do own the blues in a very real, economic sense.  Record companies, promoters, booking agents, audiences, blues societies and organizations are and have been overwhelmingly white since the very beginning of the 'race record' (music marketed to Black people) industry.  Today, when white promoters advertise a blues act, they don't have to do any direct advertisement to the Black blues lovers in their locality.  This is because in most blues markets, it is the tastes of the white fans that determine financial success.  The only blues market where Black people make up a majority of the fan base is in the deep south, where 'soul blues'  artists like Johnny Taylor, Bobby Rush, and Denise LaSalle still enjoy a strong following among Black people.  Obviously, the music these artists make still speaks to the reality of the Black audience, or they would not support it.  Yet, people still repeat the claim that 'Black people don't play the blues anymore' to justify their assertion that white people 'saved' the blues.

But this smaller (Black) blues market exists within a much larger blues industry in which Black artists and audiences are no longer the majority.  And this larger blues music industry caters to the tastes of those (mostly white people) whose dollars keep it running.  So in light of this reality, where does the anxiety over 'ownership' come from?  Since white people already make up a large majority of the blues' buying public, and are in decision-making positions throughout the industry, why the controversy over the opinion of one Black musician?  Black people have no real ownership in the blues music industry, having a position more akin to a sharecroppers who produce the crop but who have no economic power or control over the industry.  For decades, large, white-owned record companies have made millions selling Black people their own music.  We don't need to chronicle the historic exploitation of Black musicians here; that has already been done elsewhere.  The point is that economic control is not enough.  There are those who also want to dictate to Black people who is or is not 'blues' enough, or who has the 'right' to play the music, according to their standard.  They are the self-appointed gate-keepers, now that Black people 'don't play the blues anymore.'  In this environment, the 'objective' word of a white 'blues expert' or 'blues scholar' is given more weight than the Black musician who actually lived the life and plays the music.  Blues scholarship in this way becomes another effective instrument of control by having the 'final' word on what is essentially a Black story.  This was made very clear when at one point in the lengthy thread on social media, a commentator bemoaned the absence of any 'certified' blues 'scholar'  who could settle the debate once and for all.  As the ancient Afrikan saying goes, "until the lion tells his tale, stories of the hunt will always glorify the hunter."  In the years to come, the lions will tell our story.  It is our responsibility to the next generation.

Only a culture obsessed with control will demand submission to its interpretation of the music above all other viewpoints.  A culture that has its roots in treating Black people as property, servants, wards or inmates to be managed will be predisposed to take the same attitude towards the music, reserving the sole right of definition and calling all the shots, now that the music 'belongs to everybody.'  Obviously, when Black people claim the blues as their particular cultural heritage, this is a threat to the claims of those in the 'everybody' camp because it is a direct challenge to their whitewashed reality.  In terms of power, it represents a loss of control on the psychological level.  The history of the blues as it is interpreted by white people does need a Black presence to validate it.  But this must be in the service of the new narrative, in which white people wield the power in the blues industry as the decision-makers, promoters, agents, record companies, audiences, musicians and singers.

 This means that in today's blues music industry, Black people are seen, their music is loved, but their voices are not heard unless they agree with the narrative that says it belongs to 'everybody.'  Anyone who challenges the 'everybody' camp (such as the author) is threatened with being blacklisted.  But if it belongs to everybody, then why can't any Black person declare that 'blues is Black music' without a severe backlash?  Is this is the same 'everybody' who said the Indians land was open to all because the Red man didn't put up fences everywhere?  One commentator to blog post wrote, "I don't believe that anyone can own land.  It scares me to think that there are still people out there who think that there could ever be an original owner of any land."  This man must be scared out of his mind all of the time.

But is the industry 'the blues', or does it go much deeper than that?  The industry controls performed and recorded music, yes.  But it can not control the souls of Black folk.  It can not ultimately decide how Black folk express themselves.  It can only pretend to define their experience for them.  But the definition only has power if we accept it.  Black people must define the blues for themselves without apology.  The blues is not about a particular instrument or even a particular way of dress.  It is even deeper than a 'feeling', more than a 'low-down, shaking chill', more than a 'good man feeling bad.'  The blues is the life of a people.  Without Black people, there would be no blues.  A visit to Mississippi, Arkansas or Louisiana will be enough to convince a doubter.  Here, and in other places like Chicago, St. Louis, Texas and elsewhere, Black people still play the blues.  It means something more to them than a musical style, a way of dress, an accent or an attitude.  It is a connection to those who came before, it is heritage, and it is home.  In 1940, Langston Hughes wrote, "

They've done taken my blues and gone / You sing 'em on Broadway / And you sing 'em in Hollywood Bowl / And you mixed 'em up with symphonies / And you fixed 'em / So they don't sound like me / Yep, you done taken my blues and gone.

The industry can control the commercial side of the music, but the essence can not be bought or sold.  It can not be taught in school.  It can't be stolen or even given away.  It is the birthright of the Black man and woman in America.  It has to be lived.  I have known Black people who do not play instruments nor sing who have more natural blues feeling in the way that they talk and move than scores of guitar-slinging blues players.  Just as being Black is more than just skin color, being blues is deeper than playing a particular instrument or singing a song.  Just because one is Black does not mean that they will be a great player or singer.  It is equally obvious that just because someone is white does not mean that they can not play any music well.  However, take the Black element out of the blues and it is not the same thing.  Mississippi bluesman Vasti Jackson said it best:

"Every country has the musical equivalent of the blues.  But, da bluz is a black thang.  Just like koto music is a yellow thang, and the pow-wow music is a red thang, and polka music is a white thang.  It's alright to do yo thang.  It's alright to do my thang.  We can share our thangs.  Just don't claim that my thang is yo thang.  I will not covet my neighbor's thang."

The blues is Black music!  Hallelujah.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Can White People Play the Blues ?

What is the blues? Life. Life as we live it today, life as we lived it in the past and life as I believe we will live it in the future.
-- B.B. King

I have a question.  Can white people play the blues?  Does anyone and everyone who call themselves white have the right?  Does it matter?  I say that it most definitely does.  Your answer depends on where you stand in the debate.  Those who have no personal stake in the debate and those who have a clear understanding of history will answer the most honestly.  But those who have invested their energy into the art form while denying the history of the music and the people will always aggressively defend their privilege to play the music and will fight with all their might like a prospector guarding his claim in Native land.  This is not about policing the music-making of white people, nor is is about giving out permission slips or licenses to perform the blues. Does the prospector worry about losing his claim if it was never really his to begin with?  This is neither about ownership, since everyone knows that blues is Black music, the product of Black survival despite a system that worked overtime to snuff out Black lives.  There would be no blues without Black people, and Black people still set the standard by which all other players and singers are measured.  This is about being able to tell the difference between the blues of Eric Clapton and B.B. King.  Some people are offended by the question, calling it racist.  The knee jerk reactions will always be expected, especially in a nation that is in full denial of its past.  Any uncomfortable discussion is immediately called 'racist' by those who are comforted by this denial. This isn't about race, but the culture and the history of a people.  This is about why it matters.

In reality, white people around the world already play the blues, by the millions.  There are blues festivals around the world where the appearance of a Black artist from the US is a novelty or even a rare exception to the usual all-white roster.  There is no doubt that these white artists are doing it because they love the music.  They may even have some personal connection to the music.  But none of them ever asked permission from any Black person to do so.  In fact, they never had to.  In the USA  an around the world, a white man did what he pleased to a Black person.  So when did white people ever ask to play the music of another culture?   This is not how history works.  In truth, just as they have laid claim to lands across the globe without asking the original owners of the land, white people have had the privilege of playing whatever music they want to play.  When they do, the music they make is often promoted (by white people) as being the same thing.  But just as klezmer music performed by a Black man may be great entertainment, it can never be the same as when a European Jew plays it.  Why?  Without culture there is no music.  Music is the voice of a culture.  Separate the two and the music can never be the same.  Of course, it may be in the same style as the original, but the meaning of a song such as Son House's 'My Black Mama' will always be changed with a different performer.  This is especially true if the performer is not from the Black culture that gave birth to the blues.

Some people say that the culture of the performer (aka 'race') it doesn't matter.  They say that everybody gets the blues, music is universal.  Anything other than acceptance of this position is attacked as being 'divisive'.  It is obvious that this position serves non-Black people well, opening the door wide open for anyone and everyone.  More disturbing is that being Black is seen as incidental or meaningless - an insane position in an art form that Black people created to bring meaning to their experience.  It is curious that whenever white mainstream culture develops an affinity for a particular type of Black music, this music suddenly becomes 'universal'.  Now, Black people and white people who value genuine Black expression are all told that the 'race' of the performer doesn't matter.  There is even a popular t-shirt that reads, "Not White, Not Black, just blues."  The Black blues player wonders to himself, 'well damn can't Black folk have nothing?'  The fact that Black people do not play traditional blues popularly as they did during the golden era of the music (20s, 30s, 40s, 50s) means that many white players actually believe that they are somehow 'keeping the blues alive' because Black folk don't like it anymore.  In fact, it was the blues that kept Black folk alive, giving them a pressure valve for the stress of living in Babylon.  The truth is that Black folks never stopped playing music, but the musical culture demands change in reaction to the present times.  The blues kept growing and spawning new forms of music.  Freshness in style is highly prized among Black folk and this has always kept the music moving forward.

But what is 'the blues?'  It means different things to different people, depending on their history.  Mainstream white America (and many Black people) has typecast the blues as the sad music of broke down old Black folk.  By this measure, to play the blues means to them that one must have suffered.  But how much?  Is it only about suffering?  No, but in this way people who have no connection with Black folk from the south can feel free to claim their 'right' to play the blues based on the pain that they or someone in their family or their people may have felt due to mistreatment.  Many of these arguments are based on who suffered more in human history, when the music was never only about being sad and lonely or meeting some quota of pain.  It was deeper than that.  The blues is a book of the life of Black people.  There are happy blues, love blues, homesick blues, preaching blues, east coast blues, west coast blues, gospel blues, jump blues, and uptown blues.  There is a blues for everything under the sun.  As the saying goes, 'the blues is news you can use.'

Blues existed in a particular space and time.  That time is now clearly gone.  From the days of Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charley Patton to the era of Muddy Waters and B.B. King was definitely blues time.  Blues was the popular music and the lowest common musical denominator.  The blues of the thirties, forties and fifties, the way it was played and sung - can never be recreated, no matter how many modern blues fanatics rehearse the old songs.  Blues is still relevant, but now more as a reference point within other styles of Black music that it spawned and not as a predominant style.  Blues endures in Black music.  It is our musical home.  But it is a home that is always under renovation.  It was once said that Black people didn't have the blues until we stepped onboard the slave ship.  The sound of this ongoing tragedy imprinted itself in the music and the memories of the people.  How could millions of people be stolen from their ancient civilization and thrown into the belly of the beast and it not matter?  How could the experience of a people who lived the blues not matter?

 The blues was the voice of Black people's lives.  It still is.  The only difference is that it has never stood still, it has never stopped evolving and changing.  Whatever happened to Black people, happened in the music.  And since Black culture is obsessively fresh, as soon as the new influence became standard, a new standard was applied.  Black music is that tree that is always growing.  Africa is the root, the blues is the trunk and the other styles from jazz to gospel, rock n' roll and hip-hop are the branches.  This is what white people who are always asking, 'why don't Black people play the blues anymore' simply don't understand.  Many white blues fanatics and players not only adopt the music, they adopt 'blues' ways of dressing and speech in a way that can seem like a trip down a memory lane that they never really knew or understood.  Though Black culture is fresh and innovative, what white culture is presenting as blues is often no more than nostalgia for a time they never knew.  As one white interviewer once told me, "you recreate the old blues so well.  Don't you wish you lived in nineteen thirties Mississippi?"  My answer: HELL NO!!!  There is a tendency among white blues fans to forget that blues was a reaction to the brutality Black people experienced daily at the hands of the white power structure.  People lived and died the blues.  Though there were good times, the music was a tool to overcome oppression and depression.

 The 'blues' was originally an English term for a kind of Black music that included particular song forms, scales and ways of singing that were alive before the advent of sound recording.  To put it simply, the music existed in Africa and in America long before the white man called it the blues.  They just didn't know what else to call it.  In the early days, white colonials and their descendants in the United States wrote of the 'strange', 'eerie', or 'wild' sounds the Africans sung during work, recreation or praise.  It frightened them, but they were attracted to it, tantalized by it.  Even the most virulently racist slaveowner or overseer were regular visitors to the Africans' quarters, to listen to the music and have a 'good time'.  Africans who could play the fiddle well were favored and hired out by their masters to play for whites.  These white people could still comfortably despise Black people and be mesmerized by their music, all at the same time.  This saga of attraction and repulsion, love and hate, desire and disgust, characterizes white mainstream America's perception of Black people, from colonial times to the present day.  By indulging in Black music, by playing it, white people could enjoy all that they love and are attracted to in Black music and at the same time ignore whatever distaste they may have for Black people.  They can adopt the style of Blackness with none of the pain.  They can cross the color line and slip back to comfort and safety before nightfall.

Of course we are all free to play whatever styles we enjoy playing.  Music is truly universal in the sense that all human beings respond to its language.  But saying music is universal does not mean that all people feel the same piece of music in the same way.  It doesn't mean that all music is the same.  Neither does it mean that anyone can play it in the same way as those who have a blood connection to the culture.  Just as a chinese man may love to play mariachi music does not mean that it has the same meaning to him as to a Mexican.  Newsflash: playing and singing the blues are two vastly different things.   This is why many very technically proficient white blues players do not attract large numbers of Black blues fans.  Singing, with Black inflections has traditionally been the primary standard in blues.  Early ads promoted singers who accompanied themselves on the guitar, in the days before the guitar-hero pyrotechnics that now pass for the blues.  There was no such thing as a bluesman who did not sing the blues.  Yet today there are scores of white musicians who have become famous only of for their playing.  They do not sing.  But for Back people, the blues is traditionally a vocal craft first and an instrumental craft second.

The way that Black people sing blues lyrics has been imitated since the first white man dared to play the music.  Many blues fans, Black and white, cringe when they behold some white blues guitar slinger who twists his face up in his best Black blues voice impression as he plays a carbon copy performance of 'Hoochie-Coochie Man'.  There are many players who can play very well in the style but find it difficult to sing.   Many white singers have embarrassed themselves by serving up cheap imitations of what they think Black vocals should sound like.  They seem to ignore that they also have a voice that can sing.  The fingers can imitate riffs on a guitar, but the voice is much harder to imitate.  But isn't it the voice that makes the blues what it is?  Instrumental blues is entertaining, but the heart of the art form is the singing and the storytelling.  The greatest blues performers were great singers, without exception.  Legends like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Louise Johnson, Texas Alexander and literally hundreds of other Black men and women wrote the rule book on how to sing the blues.  While they often did play an instrument, if they did not sing they could not move a Black audience.  The concept of the 'guitar hero' is a purely white introduction into the music, a product of an individualistic culture which is the opposite of the communal nature of Black music.  This is the 'rock star' approach where all the credit is given to the 'frontman.'  This is totally alien to traditional blues where lengthy solos were not common and the interplay between the players was more important than highlighting one individual.

White people already play blues and many play well in the style.  While there are many singers who have found their voice in the blues style, it will always be an imitation of the real thing.  It is true that because of their love for the music (and the profits that they have made), many white players throughout the years have demonstrated their love of the music with gestures of acknowledgement of even financial support.  When Stevie Ray Vaughn looked at Albert King during an interview and said he had taught him "everything I know."  Albert King laughed and said "I taught you everything YOU know.  I didn't teach you everything I know!"  Stevie Ray Vaughn could play some guitar, but he was no Albert King.  No one is losing sleep over white people wanting to play the blues.  Playing music is a good thing.  The real problem is the claim that culture and history don't matter.   That the sounds of 400 years of tragedy and triumph make no difference in the music.  Everyone may feel sad in life, but not everyone gets the blues in the same way as Black folk. This does not mean that white people can't play the blues.  It simply means that it is not at all the same thing when they sing it.  White blues lovers who want to sing and play in the style should stop trying to sound Black.  Keep it real and sing like who you are!  Be true to yourself!  Express yourself, not your imitation of someone from another culture.  This is what true artists do.  We all have a message, according to who we are.  No, we are not all the same, and that is a very good thing.  A white singer can never sing the same songs as a Black singer and have the songs keep the same meaning.   The reverse is also true!  Why?  Culture.  Black people come in all complexions, so it is not even a question of skin color.  Black people in America have inherited a long history of cultural progress in reaction to real life shit.  That shit still matters.  Culture and heritage is the dirt that the blues grows out of.  That culture and heritage is Black.  The blues is Black music!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

'I Was His Slave', exerpt from the book, Jahtigui: The Life and Music of Ali Farka Toure

 I Was His Slave

"No one willingly chooses the yolk of slavery."
- Aeschylus

    One day an older man in a beige colored boubou rides up on a blue moped.  His head is clean shaven and he looks younger than his years.  He is short and black as a thousand midnights.  He moves about fluidly and sits on the sandy ground with ease, his legs folded underneath him.  His eyes are bright and clear.  By way of introduction, Amadou says that this man was Ali Farka Toure’s griot, as others nod in agreement.  His name is Hamdoun Kele.  He and I agree to meet the next day at four o’clock in the afternoon.  I ask Hamdoun about being Ali Farka Toure’s griot.  He quickly corrects me, letting me know that he was a slave to Ali’s family.  “J’etais son esclave“[I was his slave].  I am surprised at how the words roll easily from his mouth.  He says it proudly, with a smile.  I wonder why Amadou - his master - told me that he was Ali’s griot.  The lines between the two occupations seem blurred, indicative of the low status often ascribed to griots.  Both are virtually attached to their noble families for life.  I think about my good fortune in running into Hamdoun here in Segu, hudnreds of miles from Ali’s hometown of Niafunke.  I look around the sandy streets and take in the scene.  Donkeys, pedestrians and scooters slowly navigate the road nearby.  Dust blows in from across the river, mixing in the warm, dry air with the faint smell of the timeless, muddy water.  Small black flies flit about in the golden rays of the afternoon sun.  The voices of nearby children at play mix with traditional music blasting from a radio in the distance.  A donkey brays stubbornly as its owner beats his rump with a switch.
    I recall my second visit to Niafunke in 2002 when I heard Ali Farka joking with his friend Bekaye Coulibaly, a Bambara man: “You are my slave!”  There is a long history of Songhai versus Bambara, north versus south, Islam versus indigenous African religion.  “We brought you Islam!“ he exclaims, and everyone in the room laughs out loud.  I can't believe my ears.  This is like a Malian version of The Dozens, the game where the winner serves up the most artful, cutting insult imaginable.  Who can imagine the same scenario in the US, where the children of slave masters can freely joke with and ridicule the children of slaves?  It obviously means something very different to be a slave in Mali, then and now.  Hamdoun explains how slavery works in Malian society.  Blacks in the American slave system “could not eat with the master.“  He also says that the Africans brought to America were sold into slavery to be “thrown away.”  Captive Africans in the US were not valued as human beings in any way, shape or form.  As it was once said in the Mississippi Delta, “Kill a nigger, hire another one.  Kill a mule, buy another one.”  The plantation system viewed Black folk as expendable commodities, chattel to be used and discarded.  Hamdoun clearly knows the difference between the brutal, murderous chattel slavery developed in the Americas and the slavery in Malian society bound by measures of tradition, honor and duty.   As he explains this difference, he looks back at Amadou who nods and smiles in agreement.  “Over there [in the USA you cannot eat with the nobles [master].”  Here, in Mali it is commonplace.  Of course in the US, even favored slaves who served whites in the ‘Big House’ had to eat their meals separately with separate dishes and utensils.  Racism and white supremacy enforced the idea that Africans were somehow contaminated or unclean.  Separation was enforced by law in every aspect of life.  This white man's law relentlessly brutalized everything Black in order to keep the captive Africans in their proscribed places.  Terrorist tactics such as cross-burnings, lynchings and beatings were the order of the day.  There was no obligation on the part of the master and no protection was afforded the slave.  They had no rights whatsoever.
    Hamdoun explains that there is a code of conduct for the institution of bondage in Mali.  If a slave needs money, his master gives it to him.  Just this morning, Amadou had come to Hamdoun’s house and gave his wife food and money.  “Slavery here is not the same thing as you all experienced.  With us here, every noble has their slave…your father took care of me, your child will take care of my child.”  This  type of bondage is passed down through the generations so that every noble family is bound to a slave family.  There are complex rules, verbal contracts and traditions which govern what is appropriate and what is not.  “You, they took from here to take over there to throw you away, to mistreat you.  Here, you cannot mistreat a slave.  A person with a slave is obliged to feed them, to provide them with clothing.  You must do everything for them.”  He explains that slaves are in charge of certain aspect of their masters' lives.  For example, if a noble wants to marry a particular woman and the slave objects, then he cannot take the woman as his wife.  The noble is obligated to leave the woman.  Hamdoun says, “It is me [with his wife] who cooks, who does everything.”  As such, it is the slave who dictates who can become the noble’s wife since it is he who will have to do all the work for the woman.  Though he has a low status, the slave has some measure of power in the household.  “We are proud to do it!” says Hamdoun.  He opens his arms wide for emphasis as his eyes flash with a serious intensity.  There are obligations on both sides, for noble and slave.  “Even if I do something stupid in town, I cannot be touched.  They [the police] will come and tell you [the noble] something.”  Traditional slavery operates through contract, protocol and obligation.  It is not freedom.  But it has rules and customs which are uniform and cannot be violated.   Captive Africans in the West were sold off just like livestock and they could be mistreated or killed for no reason.  This is unthinkable in Mali.  If he mistreats his slaves, a cruel master risks his good reputation in the community.  “Because your father kept my father, you will keep me, and your child will keep my child." 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

When I First Met the Blues

I first met the blues when I was seven years old at a family house party one warm summer night in Denver.   We children were running in and out of the rooms and playing while the adults were listening to music, drinking, talking and  laughing.  There was plenty southern food: fried chicken and catfish, ribs, corn bread, potato salad and cole slaw.  Someone's mother or father put a 33" record on the stereo.  At some point I remember hearing the husky voice of the singer and funky twang of the guitar.  It attracted me and drew me in to the point of asking who we were listening to.  i remember the album cover, Z.Z. Hill's "Down Home Blues."  He was wearing a dark red shirt open at the collar standing next to what looked like the door of a barn somewhere in he countryside.  His arms were crossed in a way that let you know he was comfortable being himself.  He looked straight into the camera with no posing, no mugging.  This was real music from a real man.  He looked and sounded so confident.  I wanted to be like him!  Since I was a little boy watching the Johnny Cash show on television, I loved the sound of the guitar.  I just couldn't understand how he could make it sound like he did.  It was a mystery. 

In the spring of 1981 B.B. King came to town and the family got all dressed up.  I had never worn church clothes to a music event, so I knew that this was going to be something different.  As we rode to the concert I felt a little strange in my tight polyester pants, a strangling necktie and my scratchy wool jacket.  The venue was an old theater converted into a supper club/music hall near a shopping mall.  We walked into the dark club and I was surprised to see it look just like a restaurant, with plush booths, huge indoor plants and dim lighting.  Our table was close to the stage.  We ordered our food and waited for the band to take the stage.  We didn't wait long and they soon appeared.  It was a young, all-Black band with a guitarist, a horn section, bass, piano and drums.  Big afros were still in style and the young men looked regal in their matching suits.  They warmed up the crowd with a few instrumentals before the star of the show came out.  When he finally ascended the stage it was like watching a mighty bullfighter step into the ring.  The mostly Black crowd applauded and cheered the blues legend and the high energy of the moment saturated the surrounding air until it almost felt humid inside the small theater.  It was like a church revival, a pep rally and a sporting event all rolled into one.  The man was a God and he held the crowd in the palm of his hand.

I had just got my first real guitar as a gift from my mother.  I didn't even know how to play it yet, but I would strum it and hold it to my ear to hear the sound.  I imagined myself playing on a stage in front of thousands of people, the spotlight shining on me.  I loved to smell and feel the wood, the cool smoothness of the instrument.  I would brush the strings, trying to conjure the sounds that I had heard coming out of the record player at home.  I loved the guitar, and tonight I would learn what it could really do in the hands of a master.  Mr. Riley King did not disappoint.  As soon as he touched the guitar it became a living,  breathing animal that responded to his every command.  His guitar had six strings like mine, and he had ten fingers like me.  But his guitar was saying things that only the human voice can express: shouting, crying, wailing, whispering…it was all there.  All the while he was singing, rapping, leading the band, feeling the audience.  A middle aged Black sister way in the back yelled out to him like it was her own personal show, dancing in the aisle and having the time of her life.  "Yes B.B.!  Yes baby!  Sing it!"  I was amazed that he had this affect on a woman who only knew him for his music.  This was the first time that I realized the power of music.  Every time he struck a chord or a note it seemed as if orbs of light shined from his fingers.  The band followed his every cue like telepathy was a normal thing for them.  They were polished, and tight, but soulful and gritty at the same time.  For a twelve year old boy from a smoggy cowtown called Denver it was a magical experience.

At the end of the concert the band turned it up, playing a fast shuffle while B.B. walked the stage and tossed guitar picks into the audience.  I ran over to the side of the stage and he pressed one of his signature guitar picks into my palm.  He began to turn away as I held out my hand, hoping for a handshake.  He turned towards me again, shook my hand and smiled before continuing on to the other side of the stage to toss out more guitar picks.  I had imagined shaking his hand would be something like gripping a rock, but to my surprise his hands were big and soft.  I walked back to the table where my parents were seated, feeling as if I had won the lottery.  I had never seen a guitar pick like this.  It was plastic, the color of tortoise shell with the B.B. King logo emblazoned in glittering gold lettering on one side.  I rubbed it with my thumb and it was like the energy of the entire performance was concentrated into this little brown piece of plastic that I now held in my hand like it was a precious stone.  Before i saw B.B. King in concert, I imagined that blues was some sort of high science that was taught in music school.  It took me years to learn that real blues can't be taught in school.  Now that I had seen a real bluesman play and even shook his hand, I began to feel like the guitar was something real that could be learned with practice, not the mysterious instrument that only the chosen few could play.  The blues was now real to me for the first time.  This was the day that the mystery began to unravel.  There was no way I could know that in fifteen years I would be the opening act for B.B. King, touring with him across North America, Europe and Japan.  My journey in the blues had just begun.