Corey Harris

Corey Harris
BBS Interview

By Rachel Lee
March 2010

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Corey Harris made his way to Massachusetts last month to do two shows, in Cambridge and New Bedford. The BBS's Rachel Lee was able to speak with him before his first show and picked up some very interesting stuff from one of the true renaissance men of the blues.

Rachel Lee: When did you start playing the blues and who were your first influences?

Corey Harris: I don’t know…I was a kid, definitely. I played trumpet before I played guitar and we had some blues and jazz-type numbers we played in school, so I guess technically it would have been around when I was in 5th or 6th grade, right around there.

RL: Was it something handed down to you, or something you acquired on your own?

CH: Well my family is from the South, so we had music around on records and I became aware of people like Z.Z. Hill and B.B. King through records at home.

RL: When you recorded your first record, did you think of yourself specifically as a blues artist, or did you know that you were going to do other things as well?

CH: I always knew I was going to do different things and write original music; that was my main goal all along. But I always liked to play the blues as well.

RL: I've read that you lived in New Orleans for a while. Can you tell me about your time there?

CH: When I was in New Orleans I was a street musician, mainly. I played in bars and clubs and in festivals in the area.

RL:Which clubs? Any I might recognize?

CH: Well, Cafe Brazil, the Funky Butt, Maple Leaf...

RL: I've been to the Maple Leaf.

CH: Yeah, the Maple Leaf is well known. I played Jazzfest several times.

RL: Were you affected by Hurricane Katrina at all?

CH: I was there several years before Katrina went down, but I have friends who were seriously affected and continue to be.

RL: You were in Africa for a while, too.

CH: Yeah, back and forth, maybe about fourteen times since '91. I did live in Cameroon for about a year, but other than that I've just been going back and forth to different places.

RL: Were you investigating the origins of the blues at that time?

CH: No, I already knew the blues came from black people, so that wasn't anything I felt like I had to investigate, but I did learn more about different types of music in the places that I was. Then I was able to play with different people whose music I had heard and been a fan of, like Boubacar Traoré and Habib Koité and Djelimady Tounkara, people like that. Ali Farka Touré, of course, was a big influence on me.

RL: What surprised you the most about the music when you went over there?

CH: Well, the music, I guess…what I noticed is that it's not a big deal to be really good on your instrument. It's nothing special to be ridiculously good on your instrument or as a singer. It's kind of expected that everyone is really really really good at what they play. There's no room for mediocrity, there's no halfway people as far as the music goes, and the performance and the musicianship. It's all top notch.

I appreciated that because the bar—with American Idol and the internet and things like that—is being set lower as far as what is good music in this country and over there it's really not the case. People are still interested in playing it right, and playing with originality and fire, you know. That's something I learned.

RL:There was a recording, Mississippi to Mali. How did you get all of those musicians together, like Bobby Rush and Ali Farka Touré?

CH: I traveled to them. I traveled to Mississippi and to Mali for that record.

RL: So you kind of proposed the idea to them?

CH: Yeah, ahead of time.

RL: Were there any limitations you encountered by doing it on two different continents?

CH: Well, just doing remote recording…like in Mississippi I had to hire a remote engineer, to bring the gear with him. That wasn't much of a challenge, but when we were in Mali we did have to get to the location and it's kind of remote where we recorded, which is a place called Niafunké, which is not far from Timbuktu.

Just getting there was a challenge because there's only one airline, and they don't really have an airport. They just have a landing strip. There's an airline that flies there and they don't go there all the time, of course. And it's really expensive to get a flight because it's a charter.

RL: I listened to the record. I love it. It's a great record.

CH: Thank you very much.

RL: You speak French fluently, don't you?

CH: Yeah.

RL: Do you speak any African languages?

CH: Umm, not really. I can say some words in Bambara, which is what they speak in Mali. I can speak a little Amharic, and that's about all.

RL: That's Ethiopian, isn't it?

CH: Right, it's an Ethiopian language, yeah.

RL: How big is American-style blues in Africa, would you say? Is it under the radar or is it bigger?

CH: It depends on where you go, but with a certain generation of people, like…I've noticed people 40 years and up really dig the blues. People who have traveled, say, to Europe, especially those who have traveled to France it seems to me, but really those who just have traveled outside their country seem to dig it more, or are at least more familiar with it.

Because, you know, they've got so much homegrown music, it's not like they are lacking any music. But, yeah, people know about blues and they don't really categorize blues different from jazz like a lot of us over here. They just look at it as black music.

You can go to a restaurant; like there's a restaurant in Guinea I went to where they had pictures of all these blues and jazz greats all over the wall. And one minute you're listening to Sonny Boy Williamson and the next it's John Coltrane, then after that it’s Muddy Waters, and then it's, I don't know, like Pharoah Sanders or somebody.

So there's definitely an appreciation for it and really I find in Africa that they appreciate our music much more than we do theirs. They know who a lot of these greats are, like Ray Charles or Johnny Taylor, Bobby “Blue” Bland, B.B. King, Muddy Waters. They are really known and appreciated by people in the countries, whereas over here most people don't know who Ali Farka Touré is, or Djelimady Tounkara or Salif Keïta or Toumani Diabaté, cats like that. They don't know.

And a lot of it, I guess you might say, is because the U.S. floods the world with media and entertainment, and so it's out there and it's been out there for some time, whereas people are still, in this country, getting a handle on, like, the music of Mali. It's still viewed as something really strange, or at least different, you know?

RL: Can you tell me something about your newest recording [blu.black]? It has kind of a reggae vibe to it. Would you call it a reggae record?

CH: No, I wouldn't call it a reggae record at all, really. To me it's a blues record, but it's just got sides to it, you know? And that's really what I've always been dealing with. Even though it's pretty much all blues, my first record Between Midnight and Day I've got New Orleans-type stuff, I've got Virginia-type, Piedmont-type stuff. I had stuff that sounded more like Texas and Mississippi, I had stuff where I played the kazoo, you know? I've always tried to keep it interesting for myself and other people.

RL: What were your thoughts when you were making it?

CH: I wanted to make an original record using an acoustic guitar and a band with backup vocals. “Peanut”, Chris Whitley, produced the record. He also played keyboards on it and most of the songs we wrote together. But speaking for myself, definitely blues and soul, and yeah, reggae. I feel like you have to include cultural and spiritual sides of music in what you do. At least in what I do, that's what I like to do.

But I wouldn't say it is a reggae record. The record I put out before that is a reggae record, called Zion Crossroads. This record is very much a blues and a soul record.

RL: Who do you listen to currently?

CH: Let's see, currently…today I was listening to Charlie Parker...it’s a mix, really…a lot of reggae, a lot of blues. I don't really listen to much hip hop or R&B.

Lately, these last several weeks I've been listening a lot to a record I made with Phil Wiggins that hasn't been released yet. It's all just harmonica and guitar, all blues, some covers, some original music. Yeah, that's about what's been going on.

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