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Nashville Scene Global Concerns

Bluesmen make connections between African music, Afro-Cuban rhythms, and American blues

By Ron Wynn

NOVEMBER 29, 1999:  The blues has long been regarded by cultural nationalists as America's most African-influenced musical form. While some will debate how extensive that debt might be, few listeners can deny the similarities between the blues and African forms (particularly West and some Central African idioms) when it comes to enunciation, phrasing, and tunings.

No matter how deep the connections between African and African American music, though, few current blues performers explore those links on record. Taj Mahal and Charlie Musselwhite prove notable exceptions, both having recently tackled this challenge, but in different ways. Mahal's new release, Kulanjan, which pairs him with noted African musician Toumani Diabate (Hannibal/ Rykodisc), blends Delta blues with classic material from Mali, while part of Musselwhite's Continental Drifter (Pointblank) combines laid-back urban stylings with Afro-Cuban rhythms and vocals.

Actually, Mahal has worked this territory much of his career, combining multi-instrumental versatility (on banjo, guitar, bass, harmonica, and piano, just to name a few) with a wide knowledge and respect for diverse cultures. Though he earned a degree in agriculture, Mahal has spent a lifetime examining and absorbing traditional blues, Caribbean, Latin, and African musical styles.

He started his career as a folksinger in Boston during the early '60s. Once he moved to Los Angeles after graduation, Mahal overlooked concerns about labels or issues of authenticity. He teamed with Ry Cooder in 1964 to form the Rising Sons, a band that released only one single but recorded numerous worthwhile tracks that finally surfaced on a 1990 anthology. His self-titled debut LP as a bandleader in 1968 established the pattern he's followed on nearly 40 subsequent releases: complete musical freedom, with Mahal mixing and matching idioms with abandon.

Kulanjan is the culmination of several long-term goals for Mahal. It's his first LP to feature the kora, a 21-stringed African instrument blending properties of the guitar, harp, and lute. Mahal first heard it in 1971 and planned to cut an LP with it, but he was never able to do so until this year. The disc also features examples of two idioms seldom heard outside of Mali: music of the Mande griots and "wassoulou" (hunters') songs, the latter of which date back to the 13th century. The supporting musicians, all from Mali, accompany Mahal on such acoustic instruments as the balafon, a predecessor to the xylophone; the kamalengoni or hunters' harp; and the ngoni, a small lute-like instrument from which eventually sprang the banjo.

Still, this is no research project; Mahal and company tear into these songs, singing with fervor, frenzy, and exuberance. Mahal's characteristic craggy tone and energetic air are especially inspired on "Tunkaranke (The Adventurer)," the title cut, "Guede Man Na (Guede Was Here)," and "Catfish Blues," on which Toumani Diabate's unconventionally tuned kora accompaniment helps transform a worn chestnut into a transcendent selection. No matter how much you may (or may not) appreciate the connections between African and African American forms, anyone with an ounce of soul will be moved by the vocal and instrumental wonders on Kulanjan.

Though he's a brilliant harmonica player, Charlie Musselwhite is hardly the type anyone would expect to be working with Cuban musicians. After he moved from Memphis to Chicago in the early '60s, Musselwhite became famous for his icy-cool vocal style and for the fierce harmonica licks that punctuated his singing. His appearance on a late-'60s Vanguard anthology, Chicago/The Blues Today, made him an instant celebrity, but by that time, he'd already proven himself in much tougher quarters, playing South Side haunts and sharing the bandstand with Little Walter Jacobs, Big Walter Horton, Carey Bell, and Big John Wrencher.

Musselwhite has been a revered figure on the blues circuit for over three decades. He's made many good albums--and an occasional great one like Ace of Harps in 1990 or In My Time in 1993--but he has mostly stuck to surging Chicago blues or the occasional Delta standard. Continental Drifter melds three distinct sessions, two of which offer familiar Musselwhite material. The least distinguished songs are those featuring his current band; Musselwhite is a far superior player to guitarist John Wedemeyer or keyboardist Joe Heinemann. Thus songs like "Can't Stay Away From You" or "Voodoo Garden" are engaging only during Musselwhite's moments. The same goes for the reworked version of Barney Kessel's "Little Star."

The solo tunes that conclude the date are heartfelt originals, with earthy harmonica and alternately tender or urgent vocals. But they just don't compare to past Musselwhite renditions. Tucked in the middle of the record, however, are songs featuring Musselwhite's harmonica and vocals backed by the Cuban group Cuarteto Patria, led by Buena Vista Social Club contributor Eliades Ochoa. Even if they're bookended by relatively unimaginative material, these songs are special, and they make the disc worth hearing.

Thanks to percussionists Eglis Ochoa Hidalgo and Roberto Torres' percolating rhythms, Ochoa's flickering guitar and feathery supporting vocals, and Musselwhite's piercing harmonica and deft vocals, such songs as "Sabroso (Delicious)," "Chan Chan (Charlie's Blues)," and "Que Te Parece, Cholita (What Do You Think, Cholita)" are joyous workouts. Not only do they form a striking contrast to the more rote material on the rest of the disc, they also say much about the musical and cultural connections that can be made between all of Musselwhite's selections on Continental Drifter.

Taj Mahal and Charlie Musselwhite's releases suggest fresh directions for blues in the next century. Most important, perhaps, they indicate that the music still has much to say when performed by artists whose vision equals their talent. By tapping into the music's deepest roots, they've hinted at its future.

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