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Corey Harris: Blues Traveler

Unorthodox bluesman returns to African roots for inspiration


Corey Harris isn't your typical bluesman, even though he's often associated with the hallowed musical grounds of the Mississippi Delta. His albums, seemingly recorded in sepia as much as stereo, are more Black American-synthesized world music than anything else. Shadows of the Neville Brothers, Ali Farka Toure (whom Harris collaborated with for his 2003 album, Mississippi to Mali), Bob Marley and Son House all make appearances in his songs, but the musical light is all Harris'. A skillful guitarist on top of it all, he avoids the Wynton-Marsalis-of-the-blues trappings of Keb' Mo' thanks to his insistence on flipping the traditional blues form on its head by combining it with other Black music traditions: a little hip-hop here, a little njarka and hand-clap percussion there. It's equal parts gutter and Gullah, dirt floor and city street, low-fi and high concept.

Born in Denver, Colorado, in 1969, Corey Harris first started playing guitar in 1981 after he happened upon his mother's stash of Lightnin' Hopkins records. In high school, he started a rock band while also playing in his school's marching band and singing in his local church on Sunday mornings. Moving on to Maine's Bates College, Harris soon traveled to Cameroon to study African linguistics and the pidgin dialect. While there, he developed a love for that country's music, and began incorporating the rhythmic sensibilities of the African sound into his own music.

Moving to Louisiana, Harris taught English and French in a place called Napoleonville, spending his weekends and off days plying his musical trade in New Orleans. Harris' copious performance schedule soon caught the attention of Alligator Records, who released his 1995 debut record Between Midnight and Day. The record — a spare, Robert Johnson-like stripped-down affair featuring only Harris on voice and guitar — earned him numerous "artist to watch" mentions. In 1997, Harris released Fish Ain't Bitin', which featured many more originals than his introductory release. Around this time, he was asked to provide voice and guitar to the Billy Bragg/Wilco collaboration Mermaid Avenue, a collection of lost Woody Guthrie writings set to music. Two years later, Harris served up the still-hot Greens From the Garden, in which his melting-pot style began to cook down into the heady stew he's known for today. By 2002, he had left Alligator for Rounder, with whom he released his best album to date, the Latin-inflected Downhome Sophisticate.

Around this time, Harris acquired a big (if little in stature) fan: Martin Scorsese. Asked to do a program for PBS on the blues, Scorsese settled on telling a story that would trace blues music all the way back to its roots. Scorsese decided to make Harris his narrative device, following the musician throughout his travels from Mississippi all the way to West Africa. While in Africa, Harris recorded extensively with folks like Ali Farka Toure, the so-called "African John Lee Hooker."

Which leads us back to 2003's Mississippi to Mali, the album that resulted from Harris' trip. Excited about the connections he had made — both with the musicians there and his own ideas about music — Harris again returned to Africa (this time with a recording rig) and recorded eight tracks with Toure and other area musicians. Upon returning home, Harris recorded four more songs in Mississippi with harp legend Bobby Rush, drummer Sam Carr, and Otha Turner's Rising Star Drum and Fife Band, the bulk of which would end up combined with three Harris originals as Mississippi to Mali.

Describing his early travels to Cameroon, Harris calls them revelatory. However, it wasn't until his latter-day excursions that Harris says he really felt like he understood the people there. Exploring language and social structure in a post-colonial setting was one thing. Playing and comprehending their music — their blues — and understanding that they were the same as his own was something he says has changed him forever.

As Harris says he has since learned, understanding the music and the feeling behind it is the most important step in the process. Tricky time signatures and exotic string instruments can be learned, as can the complicated polyrhythms that seem like calculus to our American ears but flow as natural as a spring breeze to someone who grew up hearing them. The ear can be trained, as can the fingers. The soul? Well, the soul must be convinced.

Is it authentic, that purist-y label that blues hounds so often like to place upon their music? Ultimately, who cares? Corey Harris' soul — musical and otherwise — is about as convincing as it gets.

Corey Harris opens for North Mississippi Allstars at 9pm Thursday at the Visulite Theatre. Call 704-358-9200 for more information.

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