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Memphis Flyer Cookin' With Greens

On his latest release, neo-bluesman Corey Harris surveys the black music experience.

By Alysson Cook

NOVEMBER 1, 1999:  Don't call Corey Harris just a blues man. It's not that he minds one way or another, but he doesn't think it's accurate. What he'll tell you (as he balances a phone interview with his crying son, Isaac, on his knee) is that, yes, he can play some blues, but that's only the beginning.

"My music is blues-based," says Harris. "If you listen to it, you can hear it. In a lot of my music, though, the different rhythms are not associated with the blues too much. Perhaps the melody is different or the singing, since some of it isn't in English."

Harris' release Greens From The Garden is an original batch of songs that reflects his experiences and a world-view shaped by Pan-Africanism, a philosophical movement which finds global commonalties among all blacks.

"With Greens From The Garden, I just wanted to make a body of work with cohesion -- just a bunch of songs not restricted to any genre," says Harris. "My main intent was to make something original, tap into other music, and get close to a new sound for me. This CD is also a reflection of my experiences among a diaspora of black people from the Caribbean, Africa, Europe, and the Americas."

Harris' first two albums, Between Midnight And Day and Fish Ain't Bitin', were the results of his work as a street musician in New Orleans.

"The first two CDs were more individual efforts in that they were solo CDs centered on a certain type of blues music," he says. "A lot of songs were covers, reworkings of old tunes, or new tunes with a blues base and some elements of ragtime."

Since those first two releases, however, Harris has broadened his horizons. The process began when Natalie Merchant snatched him up for a two-year stint on her Tigerlily tour.

"It was great to see a different aspect of the music business, especially with rock-and-roll and what goes into a large, touring rock band," he says. "Being with a superstar when you're just an ordinary person and observing the dynamics between [Natalie] and the band was interesting."

It wasn't long before Harris was touring with Buddy Guy and B.B. King.

"B.B. King was the first famous person I saw in concert, and at 11, I never thought I'd end up on stage playing with him," Harris says. "It was kind of intimidating at first, but it's cool to be able to know the man and talk with him. He shares his experiences of his career and it helps me because I can reflect on what I want to do with mine."

Harris next found himself touring with the Dave Matthews Band and sat in with them nightly during sets.

"One thing I like is the proficiency of the players in the Dave Matthews Band," he says. "Several of the players, like Carter, whose specialty is jazz, are just accidentally rock stars. It was cool for me to see someone who spent a lot of time working on a craft and not go in that direction."

Despite all of these new influences, he still keeps close to his blues roots. For Harris, rhythm is the underlying element. If there is no rhythm, there's no music. While in Cameroon, he listened to a lot of modern African music and traditional drumming. Harris says that experiencing the different rhythms made him more aware of it and affected his music.

"My main goal is to write songs, become a better musician, and stay true to the music I hear and try to get it down," he says. "I try to be real with what I'm doing. I think it comes out in my music and I want to keep it applicable to everyday life, so people can understand and appreciate it."

Harris will be in Memphis performing at B.B. King's on Thursday. The show will be recorded by the Blues Foundation for its Beale Street Caravan radio program. While he is here, Harris is hoping he'll get to hang out with his friend, Alvin Youngblood Hart, a young blues musician who, like Harris, is credited with the expansion of modern blues by combining back-to-basics country blues with Pan-African idealism. Some people see more than a resemblance in music. Harris says people are always stopping him at shows and mistaking him for Hart. He gets a kick out of it, though.

"Even though we look nothing alike, no matter how many times I try to convince them it's me, people still think I'm Alvin Youngblood Hart," he says.

Next up for Harris is a trip to Cuba, where he hopes to learn about the country's black culture and music.

"I try to learn something wherever I go and to keep my eyes open," says Harris. "Learning about the past and where we're from is important in bringing black people together. It's important for all of us to know who we are."

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