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BLOCK INTERVIEW (written for Acoustic Guitar in 1995)
When Rory Block starts to play, it is as if she had just been turned
loose. She stomps her black high-heeled boots, twists her head,
and plays as if she might tear the strings off her guitar, while
her voice soars, groans and wails. Offstage, sitting in a small
room with an interviewer, she seems almost a different person, constrained
and out of her element. She sits as if she were trapped, tensely
holding herself in check. She talks very fast, and looks as if she
wants to be moving around and can only with difficulty keep still.
"I've always been a person with tremendous energy," Block
says. "I wake up at six in the morning and I'm leaping out
of bed. I don't need coffee and that sort of thing; I'm not the
type of metabolism that drags slowly along and can't do anything
for the first hour and doesn't want to talk to anyone. I'm a high
energy person, and my guitar playing is high energy."
Indeed, Block plays with a power matched by few contemporary acoustic
players. At her best, she conjures up the memory of Son House, the
legendary Mississippi Delta bluesman who was one of her earliest
and strongest influences. Like House, she plays with her whole body,
her right arm swinging in a wild arc as she snaps and flails the
strings with an astonishing mix of passion and precision.
"I don't have any conscious awareness that I do what I do
because of watching [House]," Block says. "But sometimes
I see the connection myself and I realize wow, he rolled his head
back and rolled his eyes and did some similar things. So maybe I
picked it up from him without realizing it. Or maybe, I kind of
think it's my nature that makes me do that. It's the way I am. The
older players I knew provided some of the inspiration, but I was
already deeply inspired. I would probably have been similar to what
I am today if I had never met them."
Block was introduced to country blues in her early teens. Her father,
Alan Block, is a sandal maker and leather craftsman who plays old-time
country fiddle, and his shop on West Fourth Street in Greenwich
Village was the unofficial headquarters of the old-time string band
revival. His daughter grew up on the music of Roscoe Holcomb, Charley
Poole, and Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers, and that led her
to blues. When the banjo players and fiddlers jammed in Washington
Square Park, the blues revival fingerpickers were playing on the
other side of the fountain. Block fell in love with the hard Delta
sound and set out to make it her own. When Stefan Grossman made
his "How to Play Blues Guitar" album, the beginning of
an empire of instructional materials, a sixteen-year-old Aurora
Block demonstrated Willie Brown's driving "Future Blues."
Greenwich Village in the early 1960s was a good time and place
to get into traditional blues. The revival was in full swing, and
Block was at the heart of it, hanging out with legendary musicians
like House, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, and the Reverend
Gary Davis. Block treasures her memories of the older players, but
feels that they were less important to her as musical models than
as connecting links to another world. "Certainly when I played
for [Son House] and then he talked to me about my playing, that's
a useful experience musically," she says. "But it was
more a just plain spiritual experience, being with this person who
I felt came from another time zone. I felt almost like I was looking
back a hundred years. It was very strange. Especially with Son House;
a little bit with Mississippi John Hurt or Skip James. Not so much
with Reverend Gary Davis, 'cause he had a very contemporary feeling
to him, he belonged in the 1960s and was happy in that decade. But
with Son House you felt like for him time was frozen quite a long
time ago. Even the way he looked, like this handsome gentleman from
For Block, the feeling of entering another world has remained an
inescapable part of what draws her to blues. "I feel a really
powerful connection to it and when I'm playing I feel transported,"
she says. "I don't know what it is. I'm not saying it's some
sort of mystical, new age thing, and I'm not saying that it gives
me the right to sing it more than someone else. I has nothing to
do with that. I was just very interested in that period of time,
and when I first heard the music it sort of took me back. I immersed
myself in that feeling and when I play the music I feel like I'm
there--wherever 'there' is. It's not a conscious thing; I don't
sit down and meditate and say, 'Dear Lord, please bring me back
to the 1930's tonight when I'm playing.' I just play, and I sort
of go into a space that makes me feel totally inspired and totally
connected to that time."
Though she places such emphasis on time and place, Block says her
first, visceral attraction was to the music itself, specifically
the sound of the great Delta guitarists. While Grossman and other
white revivalists were drawn to the intricate picking of Davis and
the Eastern ragtime players, she devoted herself entirely to the
circle of musicians around Charlie Patton and his associates. "It
was the intensity of it, the beauty of it, the fascination of it--the
rhythms were incredible," she remembers. "I was more fascinated
by those eccentric rhythms than by the tried and true sound, the
one two, one two--not that that doesn't take tremendous skill; I
mean Rev. Gary Davis' guitar style is so great, like Blind Blake.
But their rhythms were more understandable and predictable, where
Robert Johnson was not at all predictable. Tommy Johnson, Charlie
Patton, the rhythms were eccentric. Willie Brown. I didn't say to
myself, 'This is eccentric so I'm gonna do this.' I just thought
'This is tremendous.'"
Because of its idiosyncrasies, the work of the great Delta players
is the hardest sound in the blues field to emulate. Songs will subtly
shift emphasis from verse to verse, sometimes from line to line.
The pieces are so quirky and personal that one is faced with a dilemma:
if one copies them exactly one ends up with a pale shadow of the
original version, while if one doesn't it is easy to lose the very
aspects that made the original great. On her new album, "When
a Woman Gets the Blues," the first all-blues record she has
made in over a decade, Block has come up with an ideal compromise.
Having immersed herself in the style for most of her life, she can
take the original songs as jumping-off places, adding new guitar
parts and completely changing the flavor of the vocal lines while
staying close to the spirit of the originals.
Some of the most impressive songs are those in which she departs
the furthest from her models. Kansas Joe McCoy's "Joliet Bound,"
the album's standout track, is given a quite different flavor than
on the original record. McCoy was a versatile, jazz-influenced artist,
far from the rough plantation sound that is Block's usual music
of choice. In her reading, she adds a harder-edged vocal and some
excellent double-tracked guitar, meeting McCoy halfway in a compromise
between her usual pedal-to-the-metal drive and his more laid-back
approach. The result is a relaxed, flowing reading that shows a
taste and subtlety that is in welcome contrast to her tougher performances.
On Skip James's "Devil Got My Woman," she stays close
to James on guitar while singing with a passion and style that is
entirely her own, and she completely transforms his version of the
spiritual "Be Ready When He Comes," performing it in an
a cappella gospel trio with her son Jordan and her own soaring,
While she plays around with many of the songs, in some cases Block
chose to stay close to the original versions. "On a lot of
those songs, I found myself going, 'Hm, that's interesting but let
me try a little bit of this spice and this herb and see what I come
up with,'" she says. "Whereas with the Son House song,
["Preaching Blues,"] I felt like I really wanted to play
it the way he did, grasp it not exactly note for note but with the
attitude that he was playing with. And I am happier about that tune
than anything else on the album. Then the Robert Johnson tune, ["Hellhound
on my Trail,"] that was for a movie soundtrack and they wanted
it to be a duplicate of Robert Johnson's guitar playing, so I played
that with every attempt to make it be, stanza by stanza, as close
as possible to what I could tell he was doing."
Block's reading of "Hellhound," while it cannot match
the shear emotional power of Johnson's original, is a magnificent
approximation of his playing. Though she is justifiably proud of
this, Block hastens to add that there are clear differences. "I
knew it was never gonna be a duplicate," she says firmly. "Nobody's
ever gonna get Robert Johnson right. I would like to say that really
clearly. We're trying, but nobody's ever gonna get it, because nobody's
Robert Johnson. It's good to try, but it irritates me when people
try to come on like they're the next Robert Johnson, and people
try to do that a lot. They try to leap on the bandwagon. There's
some great players out there--some of the best ones are not people
that anyone has ever heard of--and some people are deeply tuned
into it and play it with the right attitude, but by and large Robert
Johnson's playing has been over-simplified, 'cause it's so complex
it's nearly impossible to grasp."
That last statement needs a little clarification, because the recent
rage of Johnsonophilia has often mis-stated his talents as a guitarist.
Johnson was not a devastating technician like Lonnie Johnson, Blind
Blake, or Casey Bill Weldon. What is amazing about his playing is
less that any one of his riffs is particularly difficult than the
way the pieces fit together. Johnson was a master in every aspect
of his playing, but the totality is still far greater than the sum
of its parts, and the thing that makes his music exceptional cannot
be picked up just by learning his licks.
"The word eccentric keeps coming back to mind," Block
says. "But it shouldn't be misunderstood; it doesn't mean that
it's crazy or sort of off and goofy. It means that it follows its
own spontaneous pattern. There's a method to it, but it's not constrained,
it's very wild. And because of that wildness it's hard to pin it
down and understand it. Still, there are certain keys [not musical
keys, but the sort that unlock doors]. If you learn those keys then
you can begin to try to hope that in your lifetime you'll be able
to put them together with a certain amount of spontaneity and creativity
and have a meaningful interpretation of Robert Johnson with a little
bit of yourself rolled into it."
Johnson is the most famous of the Delta blues artists, and his
songs are in the repertoire of virtually every contemporary acoustic
blues player. Block's new album, however, also boasts several songs
by players who are known only to the most devoted country blues
fans. Mattie Delaney, Hattie Hart and Louise Johnson are among the
few women from the Delta who recorded in the 1930s, and their work
has until now been virtually ignored by revival players.
"When I first started hearing this music, I hardly heard any
women artists," Block says. "At that time they didn't
have Delta Women compilations and all that stuff. In the beginning,
I didn't make a judgment to do songs that had been recorded by men,
I just did the music that I heard. This time it was a conscious
decision, because I felt that now that there are more releases available
that are women's music I need to make the effort to listen to them
and pick out material."
Asked if she hears a difference in approach between the women and
men who sang and played Delta blues, Block is at first nonplused.
She hems and haws, finally giving her answer with a half-joking
request that it be made clear she gave it under duress. "Almost
always in the country blues players that I have heard, the men are
more aggressive guitar players," she says. "The reason
I don't like to say that is because it promotes this image that
women play folky guitar, and I'm out here to say that they don't.
Bonnie Raitt's out here to say that they don't, Debbie Davies, and
a lot of other women players. But there was this cultural thing
that was like, women have to be sort of delicate about everything
that they do."
Block's work, from her blues to her original material to the over-produced
pop music of her first LPs, could never be described as delicate,
and she says she has been on the receiving end of some rather odd
responses to her musical power and drive. She talks about a man
jumping up out of the audience at a Berkeley coffee house in the
mid 1960s and screaming "She plays like a man!" That assessment,
often meant as a compliment, has frequently been aimed at women
guitarists; Memphis Minnie even had it as her slogan. Block, however,
says that she found it puzzling. "I felt like, 'What is he
talking about?' she says. "I had no reference point at the
time. But then people would see me and go 'What kind of music do
you play?' And I'd go 'I play blues,' and they'd go 'Oh, we thought
you would play like...' and they'd name some folk singer that played
soft arpeggios and sang in a wobbly voice. So that's their stereotype.
It's true that there are women who do fit that stereotype, and that's
fine. But there are women who don't fit it."
Block says that some male listeners have found her power not only
startling but threatening. She tells of an Australian tour she did
with John Hammond, another guitarist noted for his aggressive attack.
"People were mortified by my playing," she says. "They
couldn't take it. They never said one word about John's playing
being too aggressive, but they said mine was too aggressive. They
said 'Never heard a bird do that before.' Now, this is a while ago
and it wasn't everybody, but there were some people who seemed a
little bit shocked."
Block suggests that such cultural stereotypes may have contributed
to the generally more "routine" guitar playing of the
women blues singers. When it came to lyrics, though, she says the
women were stronger than the men. "I find that the women blues
singers are not afraid of subject matter," she says. "They're
out there singing bawdy songs, grabbing life by the jugular vein
and singing about it. Whereas male blues is fantastic and brilliant,
women get in and they sing really intense songs, sexy songs. I've
heard it all my life. Most of the raunchy, gritty songs have been
by women singers. I don't know what that means except that maybe
they felt more able to deal with human...with the animal side of
humanness, the earthy side, and deal with it directly. Whereas the
men were singing about their travels and their hard breaks, women
were getting down to it. And I like that, I think that's great."
Another thing Block thinks is great is the young women who are
now entering the blues field. More and more often, women come up
to her at concerts to say that she inspired them to sing and play
blues. "When I hear that, it's such an honor," she says.
"I go like, 'wow, how did this happen?' You know, I feel like
if I die tomorrow, it's OK. These people come up and say 'I want
to be like you,' and I'm like, that's just so sweet."
It should be added that Block is equally enthusiastic about the
rise of blues performers in general, regardless of gender. "When
I started out in the music business, it was hard just being a blues
player," she says. "The worst thing I had to deal with
was the attitude that this was totally noncommercial music. The
attitude in the music biz was, I was very good at it but so what.
'Why are you doing this?' That was all I ever heard. So it wasn't
so much being female, although that had it's drawbacks, most of
which have since disappeared."
Indeed, on that front Block is cheerfully optimistic. "I don't
mean to say that sexism is all gone," she says. "But it
really is a better day and time than it was when I started out.
I'm finding that it's a good day to be a woman, it's a good day
to be a man." Of course, she is the first to grant that her
own experience is to some extent framed by the incredible boom in
her professional career. Aside from the personal and artistic satisfaction
this has given her, it has permitted her to hire assistants to act
as her front people, insulating her from many of the hassles of
the music business.
"I feel blessed," she says, absolutely seriously. "I'm
very grateful. Because I went through some things.... I don't talk
about my life that much because that's not the point. People say
'You're singing the blues; did you have a hard life?' And that's
not the issue, the issue is do you play it with feeling. But in
truth for most of my life I was stone broke and struggling and sometimes
starving. There was a time in my life when I was pregnant, living
alone, and had no food and no family and didn't know where to go.
That was when I was very young.
"Here I am raving on, but there was this long long period
of my life when I was even touring and really getting no respect,
as Rodney Dangerfield would say. Then something happened. I don't
know when, exactly, but all of a sudden I go 'Oh my God, something
is wonderful; I'm being blessed.' And I think it started happening
through the audience, which is really what it's all about. There
are the outward signs: filling houses, selling a lot of records,
standing ovations. These all are happening frequently, and I'm grateful;
I never take it for granted. But there is also this deeply intense
personal response and interaction with people who come up and talk
to me. And it isn't all men coming up because they want to see a
woman play guitar because they think it's sexy, or all women because
they relate because I'm a woman. It's both, and that's wonderful."
Having found this success after so many years in the wilderness,
it seems logical to ask whether, like the "rediscovered"
blues performers who were her early models, Block expects to still
be performing in her seventies or eighties. Her response is surprisingly
negative. Not only does she not expect to be out there in another
thirty years, she says, she recently contemplated retirement. She
had "a bad health episode" last year, and says she suddenly
got to thinking "Wait a minute. There's life and then there's
life. Where are my priorities?" Fortunately for her fans, material
concerns make her retirement unlikely in the immediate future. "Realistically,
I don't see it coming soon, because I haven't saved any money. I've
made myself a beautiful surroundings in upstate New York, I've fixed
up my old house, put in gardens and landscaping and trees so that
I don't see the road, and I have my beautiful bus and creature comforts
that make me feel a lot of joy. But sometimes I wish I could take
some time off."
As to what she would have done if she had retired, Block's response
recalls a dichotomy that drove many of the great blues artists,
from Gary Davis and Son House to Little Richard. "I wanted
to go into the church," she says. "I was so sick, and
I thought, 'Fuck this, I'm gonna be a minister.' I know that doesn't
sound very pious, but I actually put on the robe and went into the
church. But all my friends said, 'You don't understand. You already
have a bully pulpit. You're already preaching to people, reaching
people who don't go to church. You're already ministering, and you
should keep doing that. And I realized they were right. I realized
that's where my mission lies and there's more of it to come."
to the Archive Contents page
VISHWA MOHAN BHATT PROFILE (written for Acoustic
Guitar in 1994)
The stage is bare, except for a cloth-covered set of tabla, the
traditional Indian drums. From the right-hand door, Vishwa Mohan
Bhatt enters, guitar in hand. He bows, acknowledging the applause,
and sits crosslegged at center stage, then opens a small bag and
takes out two metal finger picks and a plastic thumb pick, a. steel
rod, and a little pot of oil. Meanwhile accompanist Sukhwinder Singh
Namdhari removes the cover from his tabla and begins to tune the
drumhead, tapping the wooden wedges with a hammer.
Bhatt places his guitar flat on his lap, its body canted slightly
forward. He puts his picks on the thumb and first two fingers of
his right hand, adjusting them carefully. Picking up the metal slide,
which he holds like a pencil, and dipping his left ring finger in
the oil to ease its motion along the strings, he strikes the first
note of the slow, free-form alap section of "Rag Poorvi."
His slide moves like a snake, slithering sinuously up and down the
guitar neck. The music is complex and brilliant, bursting with a
passion and drama that belies Bhatt's gently intellectual demeanor.
Though best known internationally for the Grammy-winning "A
Meeting by the River," his cross-cultural collaboration with
Ry Cooder, Bhatt is at heart a pure Indian classical musician. The
music he plays on his solo records and in concerts is firmly centered
in the classical tradition, and only his choice of instrument sets
him somewhat apart from the Indian mainstream. Bhatt is one of a
handful of players who have attempted to play the classical ragas
on slide guitar, and he has taken the instrument further than any
of his predecessors. His combination of blinding speed and faultless,
flowing legato passages is astonishing, showing a level of technical
expertise virtually unmatched in the history of the instrument.
Though Bhatt only recently came to the attention of American audiences,
in his home country he has long been an established concert artist.
The third son of a well-known musical family based in Jaipur, in
the state of Rajastan, he has been studying music for virtually
all of his 42 years. "My father used to sing, and my mother
also," he says, relaxing on a couch in the home of his Boston
concert promoter. His English is strongly accented, and he sometimes
has to pause apologetically and search for a word or phrase. "My
father used to teach students and, when he was teaching, the sound
was coming into my ears. So, without the formal training, without
my father sitting and teaching me, I was learning all those compositions,
all the ragas which my father taught. Before the student would sing,
I would start singing, because he used to teach them all the same
compositions and it got in my ears."
Bhatt was groomed from childhood for a musical career. "All
of my family were connected with music," he says. "And
some, like great-grandfather, they were also poets. My eldest brother,
he is a sitar player, and my other brother plays violin. So, after
some time, I also started with sitar. I learned sitar for two, three
years, and then for two, three years after that I learned violin.
Then finally I took this instrument, the guitar, when I was 16,
because my brothers were playing violin and sitar and I wanted something
Bhatt says that when he took up the guitar most Indians still considered
it appropriate only for light music and pop film scores. "People
didn't expect serious classical music out of the guitar," he
says, adding that much of the skepticism came from his own relatives.
"My family are very, very traditional people and we stick to
our tradition and our traditional instruments always. So when I
started playing guitar some of my family members were afraid; they
thought this instrument cannot go up to that extent to which sitar
or sarod can go. They warned me, and my eldest brother also warned
me, that I should be prepared--that you can lose also if you are
trying this instrument. They said 'Why don't you play sitar? Sitar
is sure and we know it can go up to the highest level. How far can
you go with this?' But I was always thinking that I should create
something different, something unusual, so I told them 'OK, let
me take the challenge.'"
At the age of 19 or 20, Bhatt embarked on a professional concert
career. At first, he says promoters were wary of him because of
the guitar's reputation. However, after his debut appearance in
Bombay received good reviews, the oddity of his instrument began
to work in his favor. "It was a new thing," he says. "People
were surprised and said, 'Oh, he is doing a good job.' There were
both reactions. People were appreciating that 'Oh, he is working
hard on this, so we must encourage him at that.' And then some people
were saying 'Oh, no, this instrument cannot play like a sitar can
play.' But after listening to my concert they would accept it. The
newspapers wrote very good remarks about me and immediately after
my first concert HMV company approached me for releasing some records.
So in that case I was very lucky, and after that people came to
know about this."
Lest anyone be mislead, Bhatt was not the first Indian classical
slide guitarist, though he has taken the style to an unprecedented
level of virtuosity. "It's a comparitively new venture,"
he says. "But about 50 years ago some artists tried to play
classical music, although in a very different style. They used to
keep the guitar in a different position, like you play bottleneck
guitar, rather than on the lap. Then gradually a few artists tried
this Hawaiian style." The most successful was Brij Bhushan
Kabra, a marvelously deep and emotional player who can be heard
on a CD available from Celluloid Records. Although Bhatt never saw
Kabra perform, he greatly admired the older man's playing, and considers
him an early inspiration.
Although he knew of the existence of other guitarists, Bhatt found
no one in Jaipur who could teach Indian classical slide playing.
Therefore, the young player had to work out his own techniques.
"It was very difficult," he says. "But music was
in my blood. I had seen Hawaiian guitar playing, so I knew how the
instrument was held, and the rest I mostly did myself." His
picking style, which uses the index and middle fingers plucking
alternately on the same string, was adapted from vina technique.
However, vina players anchor the thumb (rather like bass guitarists),
while Bhatt chose instead to anchor his little finger, leaving the
thumb free to strum the lower drone strings.
Along with developing his own style, Bhatt developed a unique instrument
on which to play. The Western guitar could not meet all of the demands
of the Indian style, so he began to make modifications that would
bring it closer to standard Indian stringed instruments like the
sitar and sarod. These have three kinds of strings: the melody strings,
which are fretted with the left hand; chikari (the root note) and
other drone strings, which are not fretted but are occasionally
strummed; and tarab, or sympathetic strings, which are not played
but are tuned so that they vibrate sympathetically with the other
strings. Kabra had already altered the string arrangement, providing
the Indian juxtaposition of melody strings and drones, but Bhatt
wanted something more.
"I was used to the sound of the sitar, with its sympathetic
strings," Bhatt says. "So I started experimenting with
my instrument. I had a hammer and screwdriver and different things
and I tried and was able to put on four tarab, and I changed all
the strings which the guitar originally was having, and put other
strings for chikari and drones. But the result was not good, because
I am not an instrument maker, I am just an artist." Bhatt laughs,
and shakes his head from side to side. "So then I went to a
guitar maker in Jaipur. His name was Mahavir--he is no more--and
he was a sitar repairer. So I went to him and told him what I needed
and he did it in the proper way. He put eight sympathetic strings
for me. Then, gradually, I designed this instrument and I explained
it to a guitar maker in Calcutta, Bhaba Sindhu Bishwas is his name,
and he made this one with 12 sympathetic strings in 1988."
With Bhatt's success, other young guitarists have followed his
lead and now his style of instrument is becoming a standard model.
"Everyone is having now this sort of guitar," he says.
"They go to the shop and ask 'What is like Bhatt's model? Give
us that.' I play on TV and they watch me and then they're going
immediately to buy one. The maker is now a big businessman, just
making guitars for all of them. One guitar player, he came from
Australia recently to my home in Jaipur and he took one of these
guitars, and one dobro player from Japan, he also came to my house
and took one."
Bhatt's own guitar is the prototype and it bears the scars of several
false starts and experiments. It is arranged with three melody strings,
two chikari and three drones, with 12 tarab running underneath them.
Bhatt takes it from its case and lovingly runs the slide up the
neck, playing a few delicate lines of music. The instrument has
a quite harsh tone, but in the intimate living-room setting Bhatt
plays with a gentleness that is surprising after the passion of
his concert work. The experience is rather like hearing a great
singer humming to himself, an apt simile when one considers the
stress Indian instrumentalists place on a vocal-centered musical
approach. "Vocal music is very important in Indian classical
music," Bhatt says. "If you can come very close to singing
style on your instrument, that is very good. If you are able to
get this freedom, and express your expressions which are in your
mind, that is tremendous."
Bhatt feels that the ability to duplicate vocal lines is one of
the slide guitar's great advantages over some traditional Indian
instruments. "In sitar, you have some limitations," he
says. "When you play mir, which means you are going from one
note to another without breaking the sound [in Western terminology,
legato], in sitar you play mir by pulling the string [behind the
raised frets], and you can pull a string for maximum four notes
or maybe five. But with Hawaiian guitar we can cover whole octaves
or more just by moving the slide."
Bhatt uses a four-inch length of solid steel curtain rod as a slide,
filing the end till it is perfectly rounded and smooth. He says
he has experimented with glass and other metals, but he finds the
heavy steel the best for his purposes. The weight and solidity gives
him the sustain he needs for his extended legato passages, which
can include a dozen clearly articulated notes. His current slide
is discolored with age and, though the end is kept shiny with regular
use, it is beginning to rust on the sides. However, Bhatt says this
is a good thing, as it makes the bar easier to hold. Unlike other
Hawaiian-style players, who hold their slide flat across the strings
and damp the notes behind the slide with the side of their little
finger, Bhatt holds his slide at an angle so that the rounded end
contacts only one string at a time and he damps with the tip of
his oiled ring finger.
Considering the modifications he has made in the instrument, and
his unique playing technique, it is not particularly far-fetched
for Bhatt to think of himself as apart from the rest of the guitar
world. Though in conversation he refers to his instrument as guitar
or Hawaiian guitar, on his record labels it is called a mohan vina.
In Indian classical parlance "vina" is a generic term
for stringed instruments, but in this case it more specifically
it refers to the slide guitar's closest Indian relative, the vichitra
vina, a large instrument which is played by sliding a round glass
ball along the plucked strings.
"I listened to a great deal of vichitra vina," Bhatt
says. "But really I must say I don't like the sound of vina
much, because it is very shrill and thin. Also, you are not able
to play fast moments on it because it is a very big instrument,
so you have to cover two feet or something like that for an octave.
It takes time to reach there, and that puts a certain limit on your
speed. The Hawaiian guitar is not so big, so you can play whatever
you want. Then, the guitar can have a deep sound, very close to
sarod in the bass especially, and when I go to the high octave is
sounds sometime like sitar or vina, so it is like a combination
of all three in one. So this instrument has almost no limitations,
it depends only on your skill."
However, Bhatt is quick to add that the guitar presents special
problems along with its advantages. "Especially, it is very
difficult to play," he says, smiling ruefully. "In sitar
we have frets, like in Spanish guitar, but in this Hawaiian slide
style you have to place your rod just at the right place; you have
to be very accurate. You cannot see the notes, so you just have
to feel and listen to it with your ears. It's like you never know
what is going to be there, and you have to practice very, very hard,
I think four times more than any other instrument."
Though he has spent much of his life as a crusader to elevate the
reputation of the guitar, Bhatt stresses that all technical and
instrumental considerations must be secondary to the music. He feels
that by now his choice of instrument has ceased to be a novelty
and it is time he was considered less as a guitarist per se than
as a composer and improviser. "In the early days, people were
wondering if the guitar could do this music," he says. "But
now I have crossed that period, that struggling or making people
convinced. Now they know that this can be done, because I have played
in about every city and big concert in India. So now they can think
more about the music. Because what I am playing is just pure Indian
traditional classical music; it has nothing to do with the instrument
as such. The important thing is the music that you are playing,
that it should be pure and strong."
Strong, Bhatt's music certainly is. In concert, he plays with a
fierce power that sets him apart from his more introspective contemporaries.
He often describes his playing as aggressive, and says that some
Indian critics have even considered it too much so. "One newspaper,
he writes that he listened to me 15 years before and now he finds
me even more aggressive," he says. "And it's true. But
it is because so many people in India, especially the young people,
they go for all this popular music, film music or Western music,
especially this MTV. So my aim is to get them and not let them go
away. Because our music has everything in it, its potential is so
rich. My goal is to reach the young people that are behind the music
like pop, jazz, rock, disco, so that they should know this music
is so great. I want to make it interesting; I don't want to lose
them for a single minute; I want to be in contact with them all
In this new crusade, Bhatt is finding that the guitar is an invaluable
asset. Though his music is in the classical tradition, Bhatt's instrument
makes it easier for him to reach an generation weaned on rock videos.
It also creates a cross-cultural bond which accounts for much of
his recent popularity in the West. It was because he was a guitarist
that he first came to the attention of Ry Cooder, leading to his
recent Grammy and the attendant surge of interest in his music.
"After Water Lily acoustics released my first CD, someone gave
a copy to this Mr. Ry Cooder," Bhatt says, describing how the
collaboration came about. "He liked it so much that he made
very good remarks and they put a sticker on the CD with his words.
So Mr. Kavi Alexander, the producer, told him 'Why don't you two
do something together?'"
Bhatt says that Cooder was immediately interested, but he himself
was more reluctant. "First of all, I was not sure what I can
do," he says. "I didn't know what is this music, blues
music, and usually we Indian classical musicians, we feel, 'Oh,
how will we combine with such music?' So in the first instance I
refused, I thought it won't be possible for me." Alexander,
however, did not give up. "He continued to call me and the
co-producer of the record, Shankar Corporation also approached me.
He said 'You should just do it once, and then you see what happens.'
So I said OK, because I enjoy experimenting with different things."
Bhatt frequently stresses the experimental nature of the collaboration,
pointing out that he first met Cooder only half an hour before they
began recording. "He brought many guitars, and he started playing
some different things," Bhatt recalls. "I was just looking
and listening to it, thinking how can I combine. I composed the
first piece, 'A Meeting by the River,' then and there, after listening
to some of his music that was similar to that scale."
(A brief explanation: Classical ragas are not compositions in the
European sense, but rather are set scales consisting of a certain
series of notes ascending and sometimes a different series descending.
Each raga is defined by a scale and certain key phrases, and is
divided in several sections defined by their tempo and time signature.)
"That is how the first piece went," Bhatt continues.
"And then I had in my mind a composition in 7 1/2 beats, but
when I played it Ry said he didn't find it suitable. So I said 'OK,
forget it, I won't play anything like that. You just play whatever
you want.' Then he played a tune which is closer to my music; the
composition 'Longing' is close to our rag 'Nat Bhairavi.' So I played
that, but not in the purely classical way, because when you combine
with someone you cannot play your own traditional music; it is so
different. So I changed and combined with him. The next composition
[Ganges Delta Blues] is closer to our rag 'Dhani' [the pentatonic
blues scale]. I told him to play something and let me see what I
can do in that, and I suggested him to play in this scale if he
has something in his mind liked this. Then I thought, 'Oh, this
is good, because it is closer to our rag.' It was not necessary
that it should be closer, but you know sometimes that can make it
easier to improvise. So that's how we were doing it, recording and
composing and recording."
Considering the impromtu nature of the session, Bhatt frankly admits
that he was surprised at the acclaim the record received. "I
did not expect that much success for it," he says, laughing.
"I thought it was a nice CD, and that it would go well, but
this was really sort of unexpected. But we got very good remarks
from the newspapers and magazines, so we were very hopeful that
it would click."
Glad as he is for the international attention the Grammy is bringing
him, Bhatt is quick to agree that the playing on "Meeting by
the River" does not come up to the standards of his solo work.
"On this record, we were having nice fun, and it was very enjoyable,"
he says. "But when we play Indian classical, it is like the
complete form. It is systematic and every movement is there--fast
movement, slow movement--it is so complete. When we combine with
someone in another style it is something else, no system is there
Asked how the collaboration has been received by Indian audiences,
Bhatt says it has not yet been released there. However, he is more
than willing to hazard a guess about the likely reaction. "They
will think, 'Oh, it is very different,'" he says. "The
traditional people of Indian classical music, they don't like this
sort of thing, or at least very few of them. But some people think
also in a different manner, that 'Oh, it is good that he has combined
like this, because this is the way we can reach out to the West.'
Our aim is to spread our music and to make people know about our
music, what this music is. So I am proud that I have succeeded in
this mission like this, because it has reached so many places. Now,
after winning the Grammy, it says that I am a bit successful in
spreading my music, my Indian classical tradition. It is in a different
manner, but this is the way we can make Western people understand
what is our music. So in this light, the Indian classical people
also like it."
Though he still sees many challenges ahead, Bhatt feels that on
the whole he has accomplished his original objectives. "I was
trying to change the image of this instrument," he says. "Now
I have been performing for more than twenty years and people know
that the guitar has the capabilities of playing Indian classical
music in this manner. There are still very few Indian classical
guitarists, five or six people only, but now there is very much
interest. Because it has been proved that the instrument can go
up to this level, so some surety is there. Also, I have a few students,
and they are doing very well. So I think that I am successful."
to the Archive Contents page
ALI FARKA TOURE INTERVIEW (written for Acoustic
Guitar in 1993)
"For some people, when you say 'Timbuktu' it is like the end
of the world, but that is not true. I am from Timbuktu and I can
tell you we are right at the heart of the world." Ali Farka
Toure is lounging on a couch at his motel in Boston, chain-smoking
strong cigarettes and talking about his life, his culture, and his
music in a rich, accented French. Though he has spent most of his
life in the small hamlet of Niafunke, by the banks of the Niger
River in Northern Mali, Toure seems completely confident and at
home in these foreign surroundings. He has the assurance of an acknowleged
master, an artist secure in his abilities and his uniqueness.
The best-known acoustic guitarist to come out of Africa in recent
decades, Toure first attracted widespread attention with his eponymous
1987 album on the English World Circuit label. The cut which received
most comment was "Amandrai," a song in the Tamashek language
which features a guitar accompaniment remarkably similar to John
Lee Hooker's "Tupelo." Toure was hailed as "the Malian
John Lee Hooker," an African musician who had adapted African-American
blues styles to fit his own conceptions. Three later albums showed
less distinct blues lineage, but Toure's reputation was set. He
regularly appears on programs with blues performers, and is generally
hailed as the great African bluesman.
Though in early interviews he seemed happy with the blues label,
by now Toure finds it inaccurate and annoying. "The journalists
always ask me the same questions," he says. "They always
want to know about blues. I say the word 'blues' means nothing to
me. I do not know blues, I know the African tradition. The music
that you call blues, I can call by it's proper name. I can call
it agnani, I can call it djaba. I can call it amandrai or amakari,
the music played on the indigenous guitar, the one-string or the
three-string. I can also call it kakamba. There are many names for
this legendary art.
"The first time I heard John Lee Hooker's music, I recognized
it immediately. I argued with people, I said 'This is not possible,
how can this exist in America?' Because these are not Western tunes.
Not at all. This music is 100% African, and particularly from Mali.
The tunes he plays are some of them in the Tamashek style, some
in the Bozo style, some in Songhai style and some in Peul. John
Lee Hooker does not know the sources of his music. I respect him
and appreciate his genius as the translator of African music in
the United States, but my music is the roots and the trunk, and
he is only the branches and the leaves. These are our tunes, and
he plays them without understanding them."
That may sound extreme, but Toure is not boasting about his personal
abilities; he is describing what he sees as a simple historical
truth. He admires the musicianship of the great bluesmen and tells
with pride of his collaborations with them. His latest album, The
Source, on Hannibal Records, includes two duets with Taj Mahal,
and on his last tour he performed with B.B. King and Buddy Guy and
recorded with Ry Cooder and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown.
However, much as he loves their music, he knows that his is an older
form. He speaks highly of Brown's technical prowess, but always
ends by quoting Brown's reaction to their session: "He is one
of the great blues guitarists, and he told me frankly that it was
only now that he had discovered the source of what he does. And
that is natural, because all of this music comes from my home."
Toure can quote similar remarks from other artists, and they have
given him confidence that, after being inspired by blues records,
it is now his turn to teach and inspire. He feels that, good as
they are musically, the bluesmen have lost touch with the original
spirit of the music. "They say nothing," he says. "They
speak only of alcohol or beer or whiskey, and that is not what this
music is about. It is very far from that, completely the opposite.
It is a very historic music; it has wisdom and knowlege. It speaks
of cows, of greenery, of a man with his animals in the wilderness
who hears certain sounds which do not come from the animals, but
from nature. It speaks of love and of harmony in the family. All
of these tunes have their words, their legend, and their story,
and it is not beer or whiskey."
Toure says his music is the oldest and most powerful in West Africa,
the music the nomadic herdsmen of the Sahara played when they were
alone, to please themselves and the spirits. It was developed on
small, light instruments that could be easily carried by people
who traveled long miles on foot, ancient ancestors of the complex,
21-stringed koras and long trumpets of the court and city musicians.
Long before he played guitar, Toure was a master of the reed flute,
the one-string violin or djerka, and his first love, the one-string
njurkel, his "monochord," or "little guitar."
"I made my njurkel myself in 1951," he says. "It
is made with a small calabash, a wooden neck, and a string of horse
hair or silver wire. It is not even 50 centimeters [about 20"]
long, and it is the most dangerous instrument in Africa, because
it is an instrument uniquely for the spirits. It can do things that
no other instrument can bring out. There are tunes that I play on
the njurkel that I cannot approach on the guitar, at least for the
Toure no longer travels with his njurkel, which he gave to Ry Cooder,
but to demonstrate the music of his youth he brings out the djerka.
It is tiny, with a body like an oval banjo head barely the size
of his hand. The bow is a small bent stick about ten inches long,
strung with white horse hair, and both bow and instrument look like
child's toys. When he starts to play, though, the music is complex
and inventive, a high, beautiful melody that sounds as ancient as
the wind and makes one's whole body sway to its rhythms.
"This is my teacher," Toure explains. "It gives
me my melodies. The njurkel was first and then I built this in '54
because the njurkel caused me so much trouble. The njurkel is very
genetic [a word he uses to mean that it is connected to genii and
spirits]. When one is playing it at night, you hear it a kilometer
away. In the daytime, it does not reach even twenty meters. I could
play it here and someone standing in the doorway would not be able
to hear it, but at night you hear it for a kilometer."
It was on a visit to Guinea, with njurkel in hand, that Toure saw
his first guitar, an event he commemorates on The Source with "Cinquante-six,"
the only guitar instrumental he has recorded (see tablature). "In
Guinea in '56 I saw one of the greatest guitarists I have met in
my life, and the finest in West Africa, Fode Ba Keita," he
says. "He was the director of a group called Joliba [later
Ballets Africaines] and he was playing traditional Malinke music
on the guitar, singing in Bambara and French. I had my little guitar
with me and when I saw him playing African tunes on the modern guitar
I said to myself in my head 'I play the guitar too. Couldn't I do
the same thing he does?' Only, instead of playing the songs he played,
I wanted to play the music of the njurkel, to tell our stories and
play our tunes. And that was how I began."
As a guitarist, Toure says he was entirely self-taught. "It
is very easy for me, it is a gift," he says. "I was never
at school. Never. I have always made my own way." It was an
unusual path, made more so by the fact that his people have never
been musicians. "I am from a very noble family, from a very
great tribe," Toure says. "So it was not at all normal
that I should be an artist. But one cannot go against a gift, so
although they tried to change my mind I never accepted it. Still,
I have never adopted music as a profession. I have many professions.
I am a shoemaker first, all my people are shoemakers. I did farming,
fishing, raising animals, and I was a mechanic and a driver. So
it is only after I have done all my necessary work for the year
that I can give myself to music, and then it is like a vacation."
As a sort of gentleman amateur, a man who plays purely for the
love of the music, Toure is scathing in his contempt for the griots,
the traditional bards and professional court musicians who continue
to dominate the Malian music scene. While Toure's predecessors were
playing for their animals and the spirits, the griots developed
some of the most sophisticated music on the African continent. Today,
innovators like Foday Muso Susa and More Konte, among dozens of
others, have brought the griot tradition into the modern world and
achieved international aclaim with their astonishing kora improvisations.
American researchers like Sam Charters have even looked to the griots
as the forerunners of the bluesmen, and they are regularly represented
as carrying on the deepest local traditions.
Toure, however, sees them much as a hard-core blues fan might regard
George Michael or Michael Bolton, as facile and soulless pop musicians.
"Griotism is done for flattery and exploitation," he says.
"It has nothing to do with my music. The music I do is a music
of education, to influence people and bring them to reason. It is
not only a music of peace and prosperity. It has the teachings of
the spirits, which one must bring forth. There are messages that
one must bring to people, so that they can remain on the right road.
This art, it has love and says you must love those around you. Griotism
is only to flatter someone in order to get something from him.
"My music was always part of my work of education, love, evolution,
and criticisms," Toure says. "I take the tradition, and
I translate all that I can of the music of my country. I find an
indigenous guitarist who gives me the tunes, and I learn them and
practice. The words are already there, they are legends that I know.
So I only adapt, I translate that which has been dictated to me
by the old people. I speak nine languages, because I am there for
everybody, not only for one individual. Honey is not good in only
one mouth. And that is what has made me popular and successful,
because I play for everyone."
Even for those who cannot understand his lyrics, Toure on stage
is a vibrant and exciting performer. He laughs easily, dances in
time with his playing, and takes an obvious and infectious pleasure
in his music. In recent years, he has been joined by two young family
members who flesh out his sound with vocal responses and light percussion,
younger brother Oumar Toure on conga drums and a nephew, Hamma Sankare,
beating with two sticks on the rounded upper half of a dried calabash.
In Boston, Toure brought four guitars on stage, two electric and
two acoustic, but played almost the entire set on electric. Each
song would start with a short arhythmic obbligato, his fingers running
up and down the fretboard. Then, as the drums started in perfect
synchrony, he would lock into a groove, a hypnotic, walking rhythm
and steady, repeated riff supporting his soulful vocals. Often one
riff would carry the whole song, or break for very brief, hard solos,
a quick musical phrase shouted out above the regular rhythm.
It was only for the encore that Toure picked up his acoustic guitar,
giving a gorgeous reading of "Amandrai." A looser melodic
exploration than most of his pieces, it was the high point of the
concert, his delicate acoustic picking revealing a subtler touch
and greater dynamic range than the electric work. As Toure is best
known as an acoustic guitarist, the reliance on electric seemed
surprising, but apparently it was just a matter of chance. "It
depends on my own choice," he said, explaining that the previous
evening he had not touched the electric at all. "Sometimes
I want to play one, sometimes the other. There is no difference
at all for me, it is only the sound that differs. That is, I can
play all the tunes I want on either. They are the same tunes, the
same notes, the same spirits. For me, personally, it makes me less
tired to play the acoustic, because the electric is more difficult,
it hurts my fingers more. But sometimes I like to let the acoustic
be, because I work so much with it."
Toure kept a capo on the second fret throughout the concert, and
he played virtually everything in C and G. For the C pieces, he
played in standard tuning, while for the pieces in G, he tuned his
low E string up to G and his A string up to B, giving him an open
G chord in the bass, over which he could freely improvise variations.
"It all comes from my little guitar," he says. "To
have the sound of the little guitar one must tune like this. With
the different tunings, I have all of nature before me. I just have
to touch the strings and everything flows from my head. There, I
am directly in contact with the music; I do not have to watch my
fingers and see what I do. The moment I begin, it is all there."
Often, as he plays, Toure's whole face will light up in a smile,
and he will seem surprised and amused by the sounds coming from
his hands, almost as if the guitar was another musician. "I
am as transported as those who are listening," he says. "Because
this is what I live for. This music goes deep into my heart and
if my fingers give me satisfaction, if I like what I hear, then
I am very, very contented. Of course, there are moments when one
cannot feel like that, but then one only has to wait a little while
and one will get that feeling back."
To Toure, the feeling is everything, and he believes there are
things in his music that can never be learned. "If one gives
this music to a professional he cannot play it, because this is
very different from what he does. There is no music theory about
it. I may play it in a certain way, but there are many different
tunings. One can tune the guitar like a monochord, one can tune
it like the indigenous guitar, one can tune it like the indigenous
violin. All to get the same sounds, but differently. Because sounds
are like that. That is what makes the melody, and melody is the
reality of the road we are making. For us, this is the tradition.
Thus, every tune means something, every tune has its legend. Every
tune has a story which is deeply part of nature, not invented by
X or Y. These are things that are very, very deep in the legends.
And they are things that we are not allowed to speak of beyond a
Questions about Toure's music often come up against this barrier.
When asked about certain songs, he will say that he cannot explain
the meaning, though he knows it, because it is something that should
not be revealed. He suggests reading a book by the French scholar
and poet Jean-Marie Gibbal, Les Genies du Fleuve, recently published
by the University of Chicago Press as Genii of the River Niger,
which gives an in-depth picture of the beliefs and practices of
the cults of Northern Mali. Then, by way of explaining his own hesitancy
to give fuller descriptions, he tells us that Gibbal came back to
write a later book and delved too deeply. "We gave him very
good advice," he says, shaking his head. "We said there
are certain things one must not approach. If you believe, you must
not approach, and if you do not believe, you must not approach.
I think he did not believe us; he wanted to write about this. So
today, everything goes on behind his back; he died last year."
This sort of mystical belief underlies all of Toure's talk, and
is integral to his music. It is so basic to his world view that
it produces a translator's problem. In French, the word genie can
mean either genius or genie, and the word esprit is commonly used
for spirit in the sense of mind or intelligence as well as for a
ghost or sprite. In Toure's speech, one is often unsure which meaning
to use, and it seems probable that for him not only the words but
the concepts are synonymous, that ideas come from spirits and genius
is simply the manifestation of a friendly genie. At first, when
he speaks of les esprits giving him a certain tune, a Westerner
is liable to take the term metaphorically, but for him it is simple
"The spirits exist, just like people," he says. "All
the entire world was made with the earth, and man came from the
earth, but the spirits came from fire. The spirits are all around
us, but to know them one must be a believer and understand Islam.
He who doesn't understand will not believe, because it is not the
same culture, the same tribe, the same earth. But the spirits exist
in my country and they exist here." And, he adds, it is the
spirits that are at the root of all art. "They are dreams which
have been there forever," he says. "It is not we who created
them, it is reality, it is nature. Only, they must have love for
a person to give him power."
That idea, even more than his melodies and rhythms, may link Toure
to the bluesmen and other great traditional artists of the African
diaspora. One thinks of the Mississippi Delta legend: a mysterious
black man meeting a guitarist at the crossroads and giving him unatural
musical powers. When this idea is suggested, Toure immediately agrees.
"It was almost the same thing for me," he says, nodding.
"Music is a gift. So, when one says 'blues,' that means nothing.
It is the African tradition. In Haiti, in the Antilles, there is
a thing you call voodoo, and it is real. It exists in Brazil. And
where are the roots? In Mali, and on into Niger. A little in Benin.
All the rest now, they only copy. These are roots which go out and
which reach all over. But the holder of all the secrets is one person,
and that is a secret one can never reveal. And it is that which
to the Archive Contents page
DAVE VAN RONK INTERVIEW (written for Sing
Out! in 1996)
I first saw Dave Van Ronk perform at Boston's Jordan Hall, sometime
around 1972. He remembers the gig as well, because there were about
15 people in the theater. I don't remember anything about that.
All I remember is Van Ronk's incredible stage presence He seemed
to grow and fill the whole room, singing with a hypnotic intensity
that made it impossible to think of anything else.
Over the next couple of years, I bought all of Van Ronk's records
and, like hundreds of callow youths before me, dropped my Woody
Guthrie and Pete Seeger inflections and set out to master his style.
Undaunted by my utterly dissimilar vocal equipment, I howled and
whispered my way through "Cocaine Blues" in my best approximation
of a Van Ronkian growl. My father still remembers it as the funniest
thing he ever heard.
Five years later I went off to New York for a year of college,
simply to take guitar lessons from the great man. Then, as now,
he was nurturing a steady stream of young pickers eager to learn
from the man who invented classic ragtime guitar, taught Dylan to
fingerpick, and reigned as musical mayor of Greenwich Village in
the glory days of what he somewhat acidly remembers as "the
great folk scare." (Others have used the phrase, but he lays
strong claim to being the originator.)
The first time I walked into Van Ronk's apartment, I was startled
at how different it was from my worshipful imaginings. Instead of
a rough bluesman, there was a large, soft-spoken gentleman in wire-frame
glasses, peering up at me from the corner of an immense couch. The
room was dominated by a modernist canvas depicting a sink, and a
great carved bird of New Guinean origin flew off the lefthand wall
over an antique gold clock in a glass bell. A globe glowed in the
corner by the windows, which were brown from years of pipe and cigar
The lesson went well, and there were many more. Often they ran
on into hours of conversation and dinner, which Van Ronk would cook
with the same care and scholarship he put into his guitar arrangements.
Then the whiskey would come out and the talk would stop as he put
on some music: Jelly Roll Morton or Duke Ellington, or Groucho Marx,
or Phillipe Koutev's Bulgarian Ensemble (Twenty years before the
rest of the world caught on to the "Mystere des voix Bulgares,"
Van Ronk based his song "Honey Hair" on one of their melodies.).
After opening a second bottle of whiskey, he might pull out an oddity
like his duet with the Bahaman guitarist Joseph Spence on "Santa
Claus is Coming to Town." Then more talk, until the drink was
finished and I would stumble out into the morning sun.
These days, the couch has been replaced by another, equally huge.
Andrea Vuocolo, who moved in in the early 1980s and married Van
Ronk a few years later, has installed a concert harp in one corner
of the room and insisted that the windows and a lot of other things
get cleaned. The whiskey has been replaced by wine, and the evenings
do not last quite as long. Van Ronk has lost over a hundred pounds
and has reinvigorated his recording career on his old friend Sam
Charters' Gazell label, which has released four albums including
a career retrospective and a long-awaited set of swing standards.
On the whole, though, this evening is like a lot of others. Van
Ronk is ensconced in his customary seat, an ashtray near at hand.
A good meal has been eaten, an experiment in replicating precolonial
East Indian cuisine by using black pepper instead of chilis. We
have been listening to his new album, "To All My Friends in
Far-Flung Places," a two-CD collection of songs by old
colleagues and acquaintances, and it has prompted a meditation
on the singer/songwriter movement and the course of the contemporary
folk music scene. As usual, Van Ronk has his own analysis of the
situation and, as usual, it is phrased with the elegance of a man
who considers conversation the sport of kings.
"In the great war between traditionalists and singer/songwriter
fans I am a hilariously amused spectator," he says, suiting
his expression to his words. "I think this is a battle that
should be fought to the death with inflated pigs' bladders. It's
the moldy fig wars all over again, with each side more asinine than
the other and each argument more asinine than the next."
The aforesaid wars were fought between fans of traditional New
Orleans jazz, the "moldy figs," and bebop modernists.
In his youth, Van Ronk was a staunch moldy fig, flailing away at
a tenor banjo in the rhythm section of the Brute Force Jazz Band.
Having mellowed somewhat with the years, he is trying to avoid a
descent into similar partisan bickering. He has a firm grounding
in traditional folk music, he admires the work of many of the young
writers, and he thinks it is high time people stopped taking sides
and listened to the music.
Which is not to say that he shies away from strong opinions. "I
suppose in a sense what I'm trying to do [with this album] is rescue
the singer/songwriter movement from its own richly deserved obscurity,"
he says. "That is to say, the movement isn't really about singers
and songwriters; it's about personalities. But there are some good
songs and what I'm trying to do is to deal with the songs, to string
together some of this contemporary stuff that I think deserves attention.
"You see, I think the singer/songwriter movement is a phenomenon
with a big hole in the middle. It's doomed to fail aesthetically
because nobody sings anybody else's songs. Anne Hills can write
a song as beautiful as "Follow that Road," but nobody
but Anne Hills is ever going to sing that goddamn song, unless she
gets really lucky. And that's true of dozens and dozens of songs.
In order to have a singer/songwriter movement you don't need simply
good singer/songwriters; you need a host of interpreters"
It is not that Van Ronk is urging a return to traditionalist purism,
to scholarly explications of "Barbara Allen" and fake
rural accents. He did his time in those ideological salt mines forty
years ago. In fact, he says, "I have no special brief for quote,
folk music, end quote. I'm a singer. I'm a musician. I'm interested
in good songs regardless of their provenance."
Indeed, Van Ronk has probably recorded in as many styles and genres
as any artist around. A founder of the 1960s folk scene and mentor
to at least three generations of New York singer/songwriters, he
has also recorded albums of both New Orleans and swing jazz, two
jug band records, and one of Bertholt Brecht songs. And that is
not to mention his stint with Paul Clayton and the Fo'c'sle Singers,
or his recent jug band recording of Peter and the Wolf.
Van Ronk likes to call himself a "cabaret singer," recalling
not only French interpretive artists like Aristide Bruant, but also
the sort of musically expansive shows Josh White and others did
at Cafe Society and that Blossom Dearie, who lives just down the
hall, continues to do today. And yet, when other people look for
an adjective to describe him, they always seem to settle on "blues
singer." It is a label that by now he can only regard with
"Like it says in the gospel, the poor you have always with
you," he says. "I mean, people in music don't listen.
That means they're just like everybody else. I was tagged as a blues
singer, incorrectly, back in 1950-what, and now I could go and sing
'Pagliacci' and I would still be called a blues singer.
"Go back to the sixties and seventies. I was recording with
traditional jazz bands. I was doing Brecht-Weill things. I had a
rock band [The Hudson Dusters.] I believe I was the first person
ever to record a Dylan tune. I was the first person to record a
Joni Mitchell tune, or certainly one of the first. I've recorded
"My track record over the last thirty years is quite consistent:
I've always been inconsistent. If people want to think of me as
a blues singer, as some sort of albino Muddy Waters or something
like that--well, they're entitled. But my rule has always been,
anything that I like and that I think I can find a handle to, I'll
take a whack at. And as it has been so shall it be."
Van Ronk has found that such eclecticism can present a problem
in the ever more format-conscious world of commercial music-making.
"Record companies always worried, because they didn't know
how to pigeon-hole me," he says. "And I used to tell them
'Call it blues. Nobody will notice.' And I was right. These are
indeed semantic questions, and I try not to let them bother me.
People aren't handicapped because they call it all blues, they call
it all blues because they are handicapped. They don't pay attention.
So, they want to call me that, fine. And I do love to sing blues."
And, it must be said, blues is where Van Ronk made his first splash.
Fresh from a jug band record he is still trying to forget, (The
dread "Skiffle in Stereo," not his excellent Mercury album)
he made two records for Folkways which signaled his arrival as the
first white, urban singer to find his own voice in the country blues
idiom. On those, as well as later albums, he mixed in white folk
material, but he always sounded more like a bluesman than a hillbilly
("Mortimer Snerd's music was never mine," is his terse
comment on that subject).
Blues is also where he found the basis for his guitar technique,
in the playing of Furry Lewis, Josh White and Scrapper Blackwell.
His principal influence, though, was the Reverend Gary Davis, who
tended to eschew blues in favor of more harmonically complex forms
like ragtime and gospel. Van Ronk took these techniques into new
and hitherto uncharted waters. The result was a style that influenced
few blues pickers, but informed the work of songwriters from Bob
Dylan and Jackson Browne to Christine Lavin and Bill Morrissey.
"I am an accompanist," Van Ronk says firmly, when asked
about his playing. "With the exception of a brief time in the
1950's when I wanted to be Mr. Superchops and seize the black belt
from Dick Rosmini--fat chance--I've never been interested in that.
I'm a singer. And I'm a singer who's very, very fussy about accompaniments.
So, everything that I've learned to do on the guitar has been directed
toward giving myself a better backup.
"What I am is a careful guitarist. I think about what I'm
doing. My idol in this regard is Duke Ellington, who paid attention
to voicings, timbre, dynamics, tone color and all that kind of thing.
When I play "Maple Leaf Rag," there are probably 150 guitarists
who could tear me a new asshole playing pretty much the same arrangement
I do. But I didn't do that so I could do that. That was a research
project, and what I learned from learning how to do that has been
applied hundreds and hundreds of times since--to accompaniments,
which is what I do do."
When one asks Van Ronk where he got the idea for a certain arrangement,
the answer is often surprising. He traces innumerable blues accompaniments
to Ellington's horn arrangements or Morton's piano pieces. His definitive
setting of Joni Mitchell's "Urge for Going" harks back
to Domenico Scarlatti, while his chart on Mitchell's "Both
Sides Now" is "a pared-down version of the first two measures
of the chorus of [the Rolling Stones'] 'Ruby Tuesday.'"
The borrowings are often so subtle that even their sources are
astonished. Asked about a favorite guitar part, the spare, rolling
riff that underlies his version of "Kansas City," Van
Ronk tells a story about a concert at the Left Bank Cafe in Blue
Hill, Maine. "Noel Stookey [Paul, of Peter, Paul and Mary]
lives up there," he recalls. "So I got up and I did 'Kansas
City,' and I said, 'Oddly enough I got the idea for this arrangement
from one of your homeboys here, Noel Stookey.' I got off and, sure
enough, Noel was in the house, and he said 'I don't remember playing
anything like that.' So I picked up the guitar and I played that
opening riff and I sang, 'Rain, rain, go away, come again another
day.' And Noel got up and walked off. I said 'Where the hell are
you going?' and he said 'I'm going to get my lawyer.'"
In these parlous times, when originality has become prized far
beyond its worth and "folk music" fans will chide a singer
of traditional songs for doing "covers," it is unusual
to give credit so freely. Van Ronk thinks that is just silly. "In
this business we all have our hands in each others pockets,"
he says. "I'm not unique; I know other people think roughly
the same way I do. I might acknowledge things that other people
won't acknowledge, but then I tend to remember where I got my ideas
from and a lot of other people don't. Because most people don't
really listen. Again we're back to that theme. They're not even
aware that they're hearing something.
"Now, I don't use background music. I spend my time up here
999 hours out of a thousand with nothing playing, because I don't
put music on unless I propose to listen to it. I don't believe in
it. You should listen to music the same way you read a book or make
love. Whatever thy hand findeth itself to do, do it with all thy
might. Including listening."
The insistence on close listening goes back to Van Ronk's early
training in jazz, acquired on Saturday afternoons from his first
guitar teacher, Jack Norton. "Jack, or 'The Old Man' we used
to call him, used to hold court in his apartment in Briarwood, which
is in Queens," Van Ronk remembers fondly. "He had been
an associate of Bix [Beiderbeck] and Eddie Lang's and he taught
several instruments, including guitar, drums and all the reeds.
"Jack showed me some of the fingerings I still use, because
he was of the old orchestral jazz school. Played non-amplified rhythm
guitar, 'six notes to a chord, four to the bar, no cheating,' like
Freddie Green [of the Count Basie Band] used to say. But, more important
than that, he taught me how to listen. For example there's a game
called 'name that sideman.' The way the game is played is somebody
puts on a recording and doesn't tell you who's on it, and you have
to sit there and name who's on every instrument.
"There are people whom you can't fool, who can tell you, 'No,
that's not Ben Webster, that's Coleman Hawkins' or 'That's not Pres,
that's Buddy Tate, or Paul Quinichette' and be right every time.
And that requires a qualitatively different kind of listening. You
can't just groove with the music, you have to bloody well pay attention.
The Old Man used to put on recordings and we would play 'name that
sideman' and we didn't know it, he never told us, but it was listening
training. You had to listen with a focus and an intensity that normal
people never use. But we weren't normal people, we were musicians.
And the kind of listening that normal people do will not serve for
"Without that training I got from Jack and hanging around
with other would-be jazz musicians, all the other things wouldn't
really mean much," Van Ronk says, and he means it. In terms
of musical knowledge, he has often felt like Gulliver in Lilliput
beside the unschooled folkies around him, but he can remember his
days in Brobdingnag, playing rhythm guitar at jam sessions that
could occasionally include giants like Coleman Hawkins or Johnny
Hodges. Asked what they thought of his efforts, he grimaces and
says "They were always very polite."
It may be hard for some listeners to trace the jazz influence in
Van Ronk's reading of, say, Ian Tyson's "Four Strong Winds,"
but he insists it is always there. "The jazz sensibility is
essentially a way of looking at music," he says. "And
the general rules that apply to singing jazz apply to a great many
other musics. Singing a phrase behind a beat. Singing a phrase rubato.
Or varying between rubato, legato, then coming in right on the beat.
It's a way of interpreting material, almost any material. I wouldn't
recommend that Pavarotti try it; I don't think it would help his
material much at all. But with a great deal of material, it does
If jazz became Van Ronk's musical touchstone, he found a complementary
discipline in the study of literature, especially poetry. Just as
he interprets Woody Guthrie's phrasing with an ear trained by Coleman
Hawkins, he will judge an old blues lyric by standards adapted from
reading Shakespeare or Walt Whitman. Of course, a lot of people
in the folk world cite jazz and poetry as influences, often with
more pretension than accuracy. The difference in Van Ronk's case
is that he really is grounded in both disciplines, and in both cases
his training pushes him not towards complex showiness but towards
"Poetry is automatically suspect to me," he says. "If
you're a good enough poet, you can make bullshit sound so beautiful
that people will buy it. I used to see Dylan Thomas over at the
old White Horse [a neighborhood bar] back in the early 50's, and
he used to recite when he had had enough to drink, which was usually.
And my jaw would drop: It was beautiful, it was gorgeous. And a
lot of it was bullshit. Not all of it, by any means, but a lot.
"I have several books of poetry that I wrote between the ages
of fifteen and twenty-five that are full of beautiful bullshit.
But I came to the conclusion that you should never say anything
in poetry that you can't say in prose. Poetry has the same obligation
to make sense as any other statement made by the human mouth. That
lets out a lot of stuff that is generally considered to be great
poetry, but bullshit is bullshit. This is something I learned from,
of all people, Ezra Pound, who insisted that poetry be concise and
make sense. If it doesn't make sense no one will read it, and if
no one reads it, it might as well not be written."
Van Ronk's compositions, or at least those he has recorded and
performed, tend to be models of clarity. They range from straightforward
blues pieces to the romping hokum of "Sunday Street,"
the late-night, Irish whiskey ballad sound of "Last Call"
and the romantic lyricism of "Another Time and Place."
And that is not even mentioning the numerous uncredited additions
and alterations he has made to the traditional material in his repertoire.
Overall, the quality of his writing is so high that one wonders
why he does not do more of it.
The answer, simply enough, is that he does not need to. "I
never set out to be a song writer," he says. "And I don't
feel guilty if I don't write a song. I've probably written enough
for several albums, especially if I included my culls. But I don't
depend on my song writing and if I think something isn't all that
great I can afford to drop it. There are plenty of people out there
writing good songs; they need another songwriter like a loch in
kop [Yiddish: hole in the head]."
Also, his own songs are facing stiff competition from his other
material. Selected over a lifetime of hard listening, Van Ronk's
repertoire is unmatched in the folk world for its range and richness.
Songs like "Cocaine" and "Green Rocky Road"
have become so closely associated with him that many fans are unaware
that he did not in fact write them. This means that when he writes
a new song it has to stand up beside forty years of tasteful acquisitions.
And Van Ronk has very little sense of favoritism.
"If you are a performer, you're a leader," he says. "You
are being paid to get up there and say about music, 'This is what
I think.' Sometimes you will be wrong, and you'll have to rethink
something. It's like the Spanish saying: 'If one man calls you a
horse, ignore it. If two men call you a horse, think it over. If
three men call you a horse, get a saddle.' But always you are the
judge, because you are the performer and you can't abdicate that
responsibility. Everything you do is an exposition, a discursion,
whether you think of it that way consciously or not."
Which seems like as good a thought as any to end with. Now, it's
time for another bottle of wine. From his seat on the couch, Van
Ronk directs me over to the stereo and I put on the first record.
to the Archive Contents page
JOHN JACKSON INTERVIEW (written for Sing Out!
John Jackson sits back in his chair, talking in a slow, sweet Virginia
"How I started out playing was a convict got me. He was a
water boy on a chain gang and he was toting water from our spring.
I met him at the spring and he wanted to know what everybody did
around there. I told him, we dance, we pitch horse-shoes, and my
father worked on the farm and played the guitar, banjo, mandolin,
ukelele, made these penny whistles. He said, 'If you'll bring your
daddy's guitar down here, I'll play you a song.'
"So I used to get the guitar out of the house and meet him
at the spring. He'd play me a tune, get his water and serve the
prisoners, little while he'd be back, play me another tune. It went
on like that for about six months and they took the chain off his
leg and made a trustee out of him. Then every evening at six o'clock
he would come over to the house and play us songs and sing. Mom
would fix dinner for him and he'd stay till about quarter of nine
and us little 'uns'd walk him back to the camp. Then another six
months they set him free and so he stayed with us a couple of days
and he got up that morning, said he had to go away for a couple
of days, but I'll be back. So we followed him to the nearest little
town and helped him with his bags and he caught the mail truck and
we never did see him no more.
"We never did know his real name, never did know where he
was from. All we ever knew his name was Happy. And he was the happiest
man you ever saw in your life. He was whistling or singing or laughing
or something all the time, like he never had to worry about nothing.
He was a fantastic guitarist. He played very much like Lonnie Johnson,
in open tunings and just regular tuning, and he did finger picking,
he played some slide. And everybody ever heard him said they never
heard anything like it.
"There was one fellow that was in the neighborhood from Mississippi
and he was a blues guitarist that was no man could beat him playing
no guitar. His name was Tom Terrell and he played around there and
he was good. And my father said 'Tom,' says 'If Happy come here
and get hold of that guitar, you ain't gonna want to play it no
"Tom Terrell said 'If Happy comes back here, I'm gonna put
him underneath that road he's building.'"
Jackson is laughing so hard that he has to wipe tears from his
"So one Sunday morning they all got together and got up underneath
the big locust tree. Tom Terrell played, Roosevelt Carter, Snookum
Turner, Charlie Beck, there was a whole bunch of people sitting
around playing, and my father said 'Happy, pick that guitar up there
and show Tom Terrell how to play it.'
"Well, Happy commenced to picking that guitar; and Tom Terrell
got so mad he cried like a baby and when he handed him the guitar
back, he took it and busted it up over the rock right there and
he never did play it no more round there. He really did. If some
of the older heads was still alive that was there at that time,
they'd tell you just like I'm telling you."
Jackson pauses to have a drink of water. He is sitting in a motel
room in Corning, New York, where he will be playing at a small outdoor
blues festival. He is relaxed and hospitable, and seems at home
in these surroundings, but his voice and dress recall another time
and place. The wide-brimmed hat and suspenders, and the gentle,
molasses flow of his words come out of Rappahannock County, Virginia,
where he grew up in the 1920s and '30s.
Jackson is one of the last great old-time guitar pickers and singers
whose work fuses all the musics of the rural south. As much a country
singer as a bluesman, he cheerfully plays anything from ragtime
to hoedowns and remains proudly free of musical prejudices. "I
don't play soul or disco or rap music or nothing like that,"
he says. "But I don't have anything against it; it just didn't
come along when I did. I can play rock music, but I don't get into
that because you can't hardly play it with one instrument. But I'm
able to play a Hank Williams song, or Jimmy Rodgers, Ernest Tubb,
Bob Wills, Vernon Dalhart, or Elvis Presley, or anybody else if
anybody asks for it."
In Rappahannock County, as in much of the not-so-deep South, African-Americans
listened and danced to much the same music as their European-American
neighbors, sometimes at the same dances. The main instruments were
fiddle, banjo, guitar, and accordion, and the songs were from what
could be quite accurately called the Afro-Celtic tradition, numbers
like "Old Joe Clark," "Boil Them Cabbage Down,"
and "Get Along Home, Cindy." It was back porch and square
dance music, played by neighbors for one another's pleasure and
"Everybody did it for their own enjoyment, and to celebrate
on the weekend," Jackson remembers. "People would dance,
and somebody would bake a ham, a pot of beans, or some pies, have
plenty to drink and plenty to eat and have music the whole weekend
when the weather was good. Now and then someone would pay you a
quarter or fifty cents or something, but very seldom you got any
money for it. You didn't have anything but a guitar or maybe a banjo,
and somebody else would come in with a fiddle or maybe another guitar
and would get up in the corner and play right with you.
"You started to play one thing, and if it didn't suit them
to dance you'd stop it and start on another one and, if that suited
them, that's what they wanted. You sat right there and played that
one song all night. When you got tired of playing it, two more people'd
move in the corner and go to playing it, and the next bunch would
go on the floor and dance. When he would play for maybe a half hour,
45 minutes, two more would get there and another group would come
on the floor. Sometimes they'd want another song, but it would be
something in that same category."
Jackson's whole family was musical. "My mother played harmonica
and accordion," he says. "I can't remember but one song
that she played that wasn't a spiritual, and that was 'Put My Little
Shoes Away.' My Uncle John played the accordion, and all he'd sing
was spirituals, and my dad's sister, Aunt Etta, she played the guitar.
Some of the women played guitars just the same as the men. My sister
Alice played, and pretty much all my brothers played, fingerpicking
style. And my Uncle Charlie, he played the fiddle, he used to play,
'Walk Down, Ladies, Your Cake's All Gone' and something about the
The main musician around the Jackson household was John's father,
Suttie Jackson. "He played guitar upside-down, left-handed,"
Jackson says. "And he picked with four fingers and a thumb,
he's the onliest man I ever saw do that. He even picked ukelele
like that. He played stuff like 'Comin' 'Round the Mountain, Charming
Betsy' and 'The Preacher and the Great Grizzly Bear,' 'Floyd Collins,'
'Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,' and a song went 'It's Gonna
Be Rain or Snow when the Cockadoodle Crow.'
"He had a little small guitar with a picture of a cowboy on
it with a rope in his hand whirled up, and they said the name of
it was a Round-Up. And he had a six-string banjo and a five string
banjo, and a four-string ukelele, and a eight-string mandolin. Only
thing I would pick up on was the guitar now and then, and the minute
he hit that house he knowed if you touched that guitar. He used
to fuss, say I always would be running it out of tune. After I learned
to play, he didn't mind; I could used it all I want. But my sister
already done bought me one then. The first guitar I got, my sister
give it to me and she paid 3 dollars and 75 cents for it. She ordered
it from Sears and Roebuck, and it was a Harmony."
Jackson could learn little from his father, because of the latter's
unorthodox technique. Anyway, he was of a younger generation and
interested in the new blues sounds coming into the area. Happy served
as an inspiration, and the source of some open tunings, but most
of his education came after the family acquired a phonograph.
"It was two furniture dealers came up in the country with
horse and wagon," he remembers. "They came into the house
one day and had a load of furniture on their wagon and these old
record players you wind up by hand. And they come in there, said
'We got some furniture and we got a music box we want to sell.'
"My father told them, said, 'We ain't got no money to buy
"So they left and went back up on the hill and got into some
trees and eat their lunch, and when he went back in the hay field
to work, they came back down to the house with a record playing
on the thing.
"My mother heard it, said 'God-a-mighty, Mr. Hume, what is
"He said 'This is that music box your husband run me away
"She said 'Bring that thing on in here.' So they brought it
in and they left two or three records with it. And they come around
once a month, every six weeks, and collect whatever we was able
to pay them on it. And they would bring a whole lot of records--any
kind of record you wanted, they had it. My older sisters was taking
in washing and ironing and day work, and they would buy the records.
I remember Blind Blake, Lemon Jefferson, Barbecue Bob. Just everybody
who ever made a record back then. Frank Stokes, Gus Cannon and the
Jug Band. He would come around and my sisters would buy two or three
records, and that's how I learned to play, listening to those records.
"I would put a record on the record player and if I couldn't
get the guitar in the same tune as the record, I'd trim me a stick,
like a pencil, and I'd cut me a rubber band out of an old inner
tube that our next-door neighbor had, that had old T-model cars,
and I'd wrap it over the stick and slide it down the neck and put
it over the other end and would get it the same sound as the record
and play right behind the record."
Jackson still plays many of the songs he learned off those records,
Blind Blake's "West Coast Blues" and its flip side, "Early
Morning Blues," Frank Stoke's "Nobody's Business"
and "Take Me Back", or Blind Boy Fuller's "Rattlesnakin'
Daddy." The guitar parts have changed somewhat with the years,
but he still stays close to the recorded versions, in some cases
covering the original breaks note for note. Clearly, he was not
approaching this music as a professional musician, but rather as
a dedicated amateur. He played to enrich his free hours and amuse
his friends and family, and had no urge to become a full-time street
corner player like his models. Indeed, when asked if he ever wanted
to go on the road, traveling around like the men on the records,
he just shakes his head.
"I never thought of it that way, never thought to do any hoboing
or nothing like that. Just traveled to friends and neighbors 'round
the neighborhood. Sometimes I'd walk like thirty miles on the weekend
with a guitar, maybe play for a party or a dance and get back in
time to go to work on Monday morning. We didn't have no automobiles.
It wasn't hardly any money then, and which if we had money I don't
know what you'd've done with it. Wasn't no place to spend it.
"Back in the late '20s and early '30s, I didn't get but a
quarter a day; I was about 18 years old 'fore I made a dollar a
day. Which I got as much pay as anybody else did, and that's what
they was paying. Six days a week, that would've been a dollar and
a half a week, and that wasn't bad money. We lived good, we had
plenty to eat. 'Cause you could take a quarter to the store and
a dozen eggs, and you'd bring home a whole great long sack full
of groceries and still have a little change left 'round."
Jackson is openly nostalgic for those days. He remembers gathering
walnuts, shucking them, and selling them to the local store for
a cent and a half a pound, and foraging for food in the woods and
fields. "There's so much good stuff out there to eat, and you
wouldn't never find how good it was 'less you know it," he
says, reeling off a list of wild fruits and vegetables. Even instruments
could be home-made. His father's pennywhistles, for instance, did
not cost even their namesake penny.
"He'd take a sappling that wasn't quite as big as your little
finger and he would cut it to about six or eight inches long,"
Jackson says. "Then he'd take a big piece of fencing wire and
take a hammer and beat it real rounded on the end and he'd put it
in the cook stove and heat it till it get blood red hot. He kept
jabbing it in there until he'd burn a hole all the way through it
and make it real smooth. Then he'd cut the notches on top of it
with his knife and cut a little mouthpiece for it and he'd go around
In this rural environment people played whatever instruments and
music came to hand. By Jackson's day the banjo, though originally
an African import, had fallen out of favor among younger African
Americans in most parts of the country, and would receive its death
blow in the '30s with the arrival of the electric guitar. To the
people in Jackson's neighborhood, however, it was still a fine,
loud instrument that could keep the people's feet tapping at a dance.
Jackson says he learned his banjo style pretty on his own, but there
were plenty of other players around.
"My father'd fool around with the banjo, but he couldn't play
it like some of them fellows," he says. "My aunt married
a thoroughbred indian named Jim Clark, and I tell you he could make
a banjo sound like a train on the track. He was the first man I
ever seen pick a banjo with three fingers and a thumb. He was a
much lighter-skinned man than I was, raw-boned, and he wore one
big plait of hair and he kept it curled up and wore his hat on it.
You'd never know he had it until he come in from work and he'd take
it down and comb it and plait it back up and put it back up.
"But I didn't learn nothing from him. How I picked up the
banjo was my brother was playing at a dance with the guitar and
he got in a fight and he hit somebody with it and broke it up, throwed
the rest of it in the river. So we didn't have a guitar for about
two years and I used to go to my aunt's and help to work the garden
and all and I picked up Uncle Jim's banjo and just kept fooling
with it. What little bit I do on the banjo I learned it by fooling
with it, by not having the guitar. And I don't know today whether
I play a banjo or not."
The fight that lost him his first guitar was typical of the problems
Jackson encountered at the dances, and in his early twenties he
finally decided that he'd had enough. "In '46, I reckon it
was," he says. "About September or October, there was
a big house party, and I went to do some of the playing for the
dance. It was near down in a little place they call Slate Mills,
Virginia, and there must have been 200 people there. I went on in
with my guitar and got up in the corner and was playing, and it
was about 16 people on the dance floor, square dancing. This fellow
come in and set right down in the corner near me there. I knew him,
but I didn't know him very well, and I didn't pay no mind to him.
So when I happened to look around at him, the biggest drops of water
you ever saw was running out of his eyes. He was crying. And all
at once he spoke up and told me, says 'You either play that box
or put it down.'
"I said 'Noakes,' said 'I play some, you play some, and everybody
else, and we're all here to have a good time.'
"He had a pair of these old striped cover-alls on and a great
big pair of work shoes with iron on his toe, with them big nails
on the bottom. And he raised his feet up and stomped against the
floor and sparks flew up from neath his feet, and he told me, said
'God damn you, I told you to either play that box or put it down.'
And he leaped up outta the chair to get me and three or four other
fellows was there was my friends that knew me, they grabbed him
and got him quieted down and got into a tussle with him.
"They took him out and about ten minutes he came back and
set down again. And he set there and I looked around at him, he
was crying again, and he told me, he said 'You stole my guitar and
I'm gonna have to kill you.' He had some kind of old switch blade
knife in his hand and he called me a real nasty name and he jumped
up to stab me with the knife and these other boys grabbed him again.
And that's what started the fight.
"Man, you never saw such a fight in all the days of your life.
They tore the man's furniture up, they knocked the windows out of
the house. I hadn't long been married then and I grabbed my wife
by one hand, had the guitar in the other one. We started out the
back door and were going down the back steps, somebody cut loose
with a jammin (gallon?) jug and it came right over our heads and
hit a locust tree in front of us, busted all to pieces.
"We kept running, trying to make it till the car and by the
time I got almost to the bottom of the steps I heard another terrible
crash and I looked, somebody hit this man over the head with part
of a table leg. And he come down them steps rolling, but we jumped
off the steps out of the way and he hit the ground, he got on his
feet and I bet you a rabbit couldn't have caught him, he was running
so fast. 'Bout that time we got to the car and I got that started
and I got out of there. And I told my wife that night and I said
to myself, 'If I get out of here alive, I'll never play no more.'
And that's what stopped me from playing. I quit playing in '46,
and I never touched a guitar no more till '64."
Even without the fight, the music that Jackson liked to play was
falling out of fashion. By the mid-1940s, country blues and hoedowns
were being replaced by the big city jump blues sound of bands like
the Count Basie Orchestra and Louis Jordan's Tympany Five. Juke
boxes brought recorded dance music to even the most rural areas
and, by listening to the radio, dancers could keep up with the latest
trends. Where their parents had danced to old-time hoedowns, Jackson's
contemporaries began to do the drag, the slow, sexy dance of the
Roads had improved as well, and bands could come out to play one
night stands in the rural juke joints. "This was about '46,
just after the war quit and everybody was coming home," Jackson
says. "It was a little place they called the Pine Knot Inn,
about five miles out of Little Washington, a beer joint. They had
a ball diamond, and Radio Dick used to come up there in a great
big Greyhound bus and bring a ball team they called the Brown Bombers.
They would play like a little town called Madison and the next time
they would play a place they call Fredericksburg, and after the
ball game they would have a dance.
"Radio Dick had about a five piece band, with horns and a
guitar and drums, and I can remember one song that they used to
do that they danced a lot to was 'Diggin' My Potatoes' and 'Get
Out the Can, Here Come the Garbage Man.' Man, you never saw such
dancing like they was doing. It wasn't no square dance. He'd have
the woman swinging, and she would cross his legs and he would roll
her over his hips, and she'd come around the side like you ain't
never saw in your life. They called it the drag."
While Jackson enjoys the memory of Radio Dick, the ball games,
and the dances, he remembers it as the end of his own musical era.
"After this Pine Knot Inn business got started, of course,
some of the older heads died out, and the others had gotten too
old," he says. "They didn't go out nowhere, and people
just quit having square dances, and there wasn't no command for
my kind of music."
Even at the best of times, music had only been a sideline for Jackson.
He says that quitting playing was hard, as hard as quitting cigarettes,
but he had plenty to keep him busy. Even today, at 70, he keeps
his day job as a grave digger, and in his prime he kept a schedule
that would have killed anyone else. "I had a full-time job
as a caretaker and a chauffeur," he says. "And in the
evenings when I got off from work I would go dig a grave if I had
one to dig. If I didn't, I would mow grass until dark, or I'd take
my truck and haul trash, and then I would go wash dishes at the
men's club and then go up clean up the office until one or two o'clock.
I used to work almost 24 hours around the clock."
Meanwhile he and his wife raised seven children, and it was through
the children that he finally began to play again in 1964. "It
was three or four kids was at the house, playing in the yard with
my kids," he says. "They got tired of playing ball and
they wanted to do this dance that Elvis Presley started. So the
kids asked me to get the guitar out so they could do a hula dance,
and I got it out and was trying to play 'Walk Right In, Let Your
Sweet Mind Roll On.' The mailman delivered some mail to the house
and heard me doing it and he wouldn't leave me alone. Said he'd
been trying to play the song and couldn't play it, and wanted to
know would I learn him how to play it." ("Walk Right In,"
a 1929 record by Cannon's Jug Stompers, had recently been a hit
for the Rooftop Singers, an early folk revival group.)
"I told him, 'I ain't picked or played the fool with no guitar
"He said, 'That sounds good to me.' Said 'I got a part time
job pumping gas up at this Amoco station; you bring your guitar
and we can get in the back room when I ain't got no gas to pump
and you can learn me to play it.'
"Well, he just kept on at me, so I got the guitar at night
and went up there. We was in the back room and I was trying to learn
him to play it, and this man drove in for gas. And instead of him
getting his gas, he come running in the back of the station--I don't
know how he seen us in there--and wanted to know what I was playing.
"I told him, said 'I ain't playing nothing.'
"He said, 'You must play something, you got a guitar.'
"So he kept on asking, and I played him Mississippi John Hurt's
'Candyman.' He asked me what else I played, and I told him 'Nothing.'
And he kept asking, and I played him a Blind Boy Fuller song. And
then he wanted to know where I lived and I told him 'Just two blocks
down to that little house there.'
"When I come in from work, he was sitting on my porch. I played
him a whole bunch of stuff, and before he left, he asked me how
I'd like to go in town and meet the man wrote 'Candyman.'
"I said 'That man ain't living now, he's pushing up tulips.'
"Said, 'Oh, no he isn't. He's Mississippi John Hurt and he's
playing in Georgetown at the Ontario Place.' So he said, 'You be
ready, I'm going to come over here Friday night, I'm going to take
you over to meet him.'
"So when, sure enough, Friday night come, he come by. I wasn't
ready, and he said, 'Look,' says 'I ain't fooling. Mississippi John
Hurt's in town.'
"So I got ready and went over there and I seen this little
man sitting there, but I still didn't believe it was him. But the
minute he played 'Candyman,' I knowed he was the man. So I got to
meet Mississippi John Hurt that night, 'Lizabeth Cotton, Skip James,
and then after the concert they had a party, so I went over there
and we celebrated till about two or three o'clock in the morning.
"Next weekend, it was another bluesman came in named Mance
Lipscomb, so they took me over to meet Mance Lipscomb and Son House.
They asked me would I play two songs on the stage and I did and
this man jumped up out of the audience and said 'I want to make
a record by that man.' It was the Arhoolie record company, and he
came out the next day at 11 o'clock; he started me playing and I
played till 11 that night, and played ninety songs. And in 1965,
April to May, the record came out and I've been traveling ever since."
Jackson recorded three albums for Arhoolie, then two for Rounder.
(The only thing currently available is Arhoolie CD 378- "Don't
Let Your Deal Go Down," which contains songs drawn from the
three LPs, and two Rounder cassettes, Deep in the Bottom C-2032and
Step it Up and Go C-2019.) He has toured all over the world and
become one of the most popular of country blues performers, with
an ebulliant stage style that includes jokes and tall tales along
with his wide range of musical material. Unlike many older blues
performers, who often seemed uncomfortable and out of their element
performing at festivals or clubs packed with white, urban, middle-class
audiences, Jackson takes it all in his stride. He cheerfully chats
with fans, his conversation laced with dry country wit. When, in
Corning, a young woman asks him why he has two guitars on stage,
he replies "Usually I play one with my hands and one with my
feet, but today I forgot to bring my strap." Jackson's face
shows no sign that he is joking, and his questioner nods as if this
explanation made perfect sense.
At home, he still occasionally plays with his brother in Rappahannock,
who plays the autoharp, and with his children. "I have one
son, James, that used to play with me on stage sometimes,"
he says. "But if he has to go somewhere that he has to stay
over night, he don't like to go. He plays everything: rap music,
rock, whatever you name it. I had the other one that played, he
passed away, he got that poison in Vietnam, it was Agent Orange
and then the doctor said it was cancer, but that's what happened.
And My daughter used to play the piano, but she don't fool with
that any more. I got one son that blows a real nice harmonica, and
my other son he's gotten into spirituals. You can start him off
on a blues and I guarantee you 'fore you end it he'll be playing
'Just a Closer Walk With Thee' or 'Circle Be Unbroken' or something.
And the next one, he picks just like I do, but he don't like to
play for anybody, just plays for his own 'muse. I got six grandkids
and I got one little grand-daughter has been with me ever since
she was three days old and she's been trying to work on the piano
and guitar, but she got wrapped up in going to school and she sort
of put the guitar down and the piano too."
None of his children show any inclination to carry on Jackson's
performing, but he says that doesn't bother him. As far as he can
see, the tradition is still very much alive. "It's so many
good young blues players, black and white," he says. "They
can play as good as me or anybody else, and there's nothing wrong
with them doing it." After all, if there is one thing he has
learned in his travels, it is that his old-time blues and hoe-downs
can cross all ethnic and cultural barriers. "When I go to Europe,
or maybe to south America, I can't speak the language, but the minute
I touch that guitar everybody understands it," he says. "I
don't have to do any more than that right there. I think music criss-crosses.
It don't buy no air fare, but it gets there."
(Note: As John Jackson is only now beginning to read and write,
all proper names that couldn't be checked have been spelled as they
to the Archive Contents page
BIRMINGHAM SUNLIGHTS INTERVIEW (unpublished,
"A traditional Southern gospel group, any one that I've ever
heard, generates a kind of energy that you just don't get anywhere
else. Like once we were in Ohio and we were performing on a program
with several other groups, magnificent groups. They sang a cappella,
but they didn't sing the traditional stuff, and one guy says to
us, he says, 'You know, I know we sound good, but there's just something
about you guys. There's a certain excitement that seems to follow
you wherever you go.' And that excitement is the emotion and the
power and strength that's put into Southern gospel."
The speaker is James Alex Taylor, leader of the Birmingham Sunlights.
The Sunlights consist of Taylor on lead tenor, his brothers Steve
and Barry on baritone and bass, Wayne Williams on second tenor,
and Reginald "Ricky" Speights on baritone. They are five
men with a mission: to bring the glorious sound of old-time quartet
gospel to a modern audience. Today they are in Boston, doing radio
promotion for a "Juke Joints and Jubilee" tour sponsored
by the National Council for the Traditional Arts, which features
them along with the Holmes Brothers, blues singer John Dee Holeman,
and Fontella Bass.
The New England climate is taking its toll, keeping several group
members battling colds and sore throats, and the non-stop touring
schedule has everyone feeling exhausted and a bit out of sorts.
As soon as they have finished the radio spot, the singers sprawl
on couches and chairs, trying to catch a little sleep before driving
to their next concert date in Lowell. Taylor is clearly tired as
well, but seems only too happy to talk about the music he loves.
In the last decade, the Sunlights have become roving ambassadors
for the classic quartet sound. Along with tours for the Arts Council
they have appeared in concerts and festivals all over the United
States, and in 1989 made a State Department-sponsored tour of Southern
Africa, visiting Malawi, Botswana, Mozambique, Lesotho, and Swaziland.
Their debut CD, For Old Time's Sake on Flying Fish Records, received
well-deserved critical raves and was profiled on Public Radio's
"All Things Considered." Wherever they go, the Sunlights
bring a combination of consummate artistry and a deep love of the
roots and history of black gospel song.
"We've been singing a cappella all our lives," Taylor
explains. "Many of our songs are songs we grew up with. Like
'The Southland Singing' [on the Flying Fish album], I remember hearing
that before I even started school. It was the Golden Gate Quartet,
and one of the radio programs would open up with it every morning.
It's heart-moving music, you know? There's music that makes you
pat your feet, music that makes you clap your hands, and then there's
music that makes your heart move. The power of that old Southern
gospel makes your heart move, which controls everything else--your
feet, your hands, your lips, everything."
Taylor grew up singing in the choir of the Powderley Church of
Christ in his native Birmingham, and received further training at
Miles College in Fairfield, Alabama. After winning a state-wide
talent contest in 1970, he moved out into the secular world, leading
a band that toured with soul greats like Isaac Hayes, Al Green,
and Stevie Wonder. He released one single, "Don't Look at Me
that Way" on Bang Records, before becoming disillusioned with
the pop music business in the late '70s.
Asked what brought him back to gospel, Taylor says he never really
left. "Even when I was singing rhythm and blues, on Sunday
you could catch me in church singing gospel. 'Walk Around Heaven'
was my favorite. Everybody used to love to hear me sing that. So
for a while I chased that one record, playing different club dates
with my band, and we did pretty good. But after no other record
was released I got a contract release from Bang and I went into
gospel. At first I was with another group, then I broke off with
that group and formed the Sunlights in 1978."
Though they always sang a cappella, the Sunlights did not start
off concentrating on a traditional sound. "We got into that
by accident," he remembers. "My mother asked me, said
'James, I want you to do this song that my great uncle used to do.'
We couldn't find that song, nobody that knew it all the way through.
It went 'I do not know if he will welcome me there,' but that's
all we knew. So I told her to choose another and she said 'It's
"Now, I'd heard 'It's Gonna Rain' since I was a kid, so we
went to one of the older groups, the Sterling Jubilees, in Birmingham,
and asked them to teach us that song. It turned out it was one of
the very first songs that they learned as an a cappella gospel group,
over 68 years ago. So they taught it to us and everybody loved it.
After we saw that song was so popular, we just started to do more
of them and we ended up singing traditional Southern gospel."
Of course, the choice was not simply based on the public response.
Taylor says that when they started concentrating on a traditional
sound, they found that it was like coming home. "That music
gives me a feeling that no other music does," Taylor says.
"The sound is so rich. The harmonies are rich, the feeling
is rich. And its something that everyone in the group likes and
that we were brought up with."
Indeed, the Taylors were carrying on a family tradition. Their
father, Everett Taylor, sang with Birmingham's Four Blue Eagles
in the 1930s and '40s, and when his sons decided to follow the traditional
road they found mentors all around them. Local veterans like the
Shelby County Big Four, the Fairfield Four, and the Four Eagles
were all willing and eager to teach them the traditional styles.
Taylor says that, far from being surprised, the older singers found
the Sunlights' return to their roots a normal and logical step.
"Those guys, some of them have been knowing us since the day
we were born" he says. "So when they found out that we
were singing traditional Southern gospel, they were just like 'Well,
we knew it was just a matter of time.' That kind of attitude. And
they were always happy to help us along."
With the encouragement and aid of the older singers and Taylor's
own research in the field, the Sunlights have developed a repertoire
that ranges across the whole field of traditional quartet singing.
"Some of the arrangements we do are over a hundred years old,"
Taylor says. "We do old arrangements, we have originals that
we have written in the traditional style, and we do some of the
later stuff like the Soul Stirrers. We get the arrangements from
different places, different groups, then we'll add here, subtract
there, and come up with a specific style."
Taylor does most of the arrangements himself, with input from the
rest of the group. "Everybody has their different ideas, and
sometimes we use them," he says. "Sometimes we don't,
and sometimes I have to change my ideas because they don't fit.
Basically we try to handle everything democratically, but I am the
musical director and if it don't work I'll change it."
However the arrangements develop, Taylor says that they always
hew close to the original melody. "We don't ever want to change
the melody, 'cause that's the life's blood of the song," he
explains. "Everything else is built around that and once you've
got that taken care of everything else is relatively easy. Most
of the time, all I have to do is sing the melody and the other guys
pick up their parts instantly. After fourteen years, you know, you
learn a little bit." After they have that basic arrangement,
Taylor says, it's just a matter of doing a little fine tuning. "Like
we may want to change an ending, or add an eighth note or a sixteenth
note at a specific part in the song, to give it a different flavor
at that point. But it's not like I have to write the parts out.
Everything is done from the ear, the heart and the soul."
On stage, the Sunlights use all three to perfection. Their love
for the music comes through in every note and the harmonies are
impeccable, the group forming a swinging, perfectly cohesive unit.
Taylor and Wayne Williams handle the majority of the leads, Taylor
as the group's sweet singer and Williams as the hard shouter, with
the other members filling in the cracks. However, everyone gets
his turn. Ricky Speights jumps from baritone to a pure, lovely falsetto
and even the generally self-effacing Steve Taylor takes his moment
in the spotlight. Barry Taylor, introduced as "Poppa Pump,"
is usually needed down at the bottom, keeping the bass line popping,
but one of the high points of their show is when he steps to the
center mike to sing a booming lead on "Roll, Jordan."
According to Taylor, the Sunlights decided from the beginning that
they wanted to be as democratic as possible, with no members relegated
to a purely back-up role. "When we formed the group, we didn't
want a lead singer per se," he says. "We said if you didn't
want to be a song leader in the group, then you were in the wrong
group. If a man's got a song that he wants to lead, we encourage
him, and most of the time everybody brings his own songs. Or I'll
hear a song and I'll say 'Steve could really do this.' Or Barry.
And we'll do it that way.
"Then sometimes we switch around. Like I gave up 'Gospel Train,'
a song I was leading, to Wayne. I said 'I think you might do this
a little bit better, it sounds more like your stuff. So I'd like
you to lead it, if you'll be so kind.' He said 'Yeh, I'll give it
a try,' and he led it and it sounded good. I took the lead tenor,
and it humalacked."
Seeing that his last word has baffled the interviewer, Taylor is
happy to explain. "It was humalackin'. Humalackin' is a term
used by the older guys. When you're really singing and the singing
is pleasing to your heart and pleasing to the hearts of everyone
else, then you're humalackin'. It makes your feet move, your body
move, your heart pump, and your hands clap. On this tour, I've been
teaching that word to a lot of people."
The teaching is important to Taylor. In concert, he often takes
time to explain the roots and relationships of the songs. "It's
Gonna Rain," the song which closes each show, is his educational
masterpiece, a spectacular fusion of classic gospel and modern rap
that points up the links between the oldest African-American traditions
and the hottest street sounds. "I heard a rap singer on television
say 'If the martians came to earth today, they'd want to hear rap,
because they'd want to hear something new,'" Taylor says, shaking
his head. "I said to myself, 'If that brother only knew.' Because
rap isn't new, it's older than anything else.
"'It's Gonna Rain' is an old rap song, well over 180 years
old," he continues. "Rap is one of the very first forms
of gospel quartet singing, and it's just taken on a different form
today. Most of the rappers now are from the North, and they use
what is called perfect diction or the king's English, but the guys
from the old days they were from down South--they used the traditional
diction what was popular back then, what some people call black
English. So what I do is I sing the first verse in the old traditional
rap, then I do the second verse in the new 1990s rap. That makes
the connection quite well. Because we need to educate the people
and that's one of the tools we can use. And we find that most people
are very receptive when we give them information about the different
styles of music."
Taylor says the Sunlights found some of their most receptive audiences
when they were in Africa. What is more, he clearly feels that on
that tour the group learned as much as they taught. "The first
thing when we got off the plane in Malawi, our first stop, was they
opened their arms and said 'My brothers, welcome to the land of
your forefathers,'" he says, smiling at the memory. "They
took us around and showed us different places, different people,
and different musics, and once I got in there I began to see exactly
why our music sounds the way that it does.
"It was like finding out who you really were. Because I've
been taught Negro spiritual songs all my life, as long as I can
remember, and when I got to Southern Africa I discovered that their
traditional songs are just like our spirituals, just a different
language or a different religion, but the style was the same. So
when you start tracing the roots of Southern gospel, you have to
take it back to Negro spirituals, and from there all the way back
to Africa. Cause that's actually where it started.
"When we got there and began to see exactly why our music
sounds the way it does, I had to tell them, 'What you're about to
hear is your music, transformed over a period of four hundred years.'
And they were very receptive every place we went. It was very interesting.
Every country was so different and so unique and so beautiful. And
at the concerts, sometimes guys would come up and want to sing,
and we'd step down the aisle and sing together. It was just amazing."
At their New England shows, the audiences are enthusiastic but
more restrained. Taylor says the relatively subdued reaction is
quite common when the Sunlights are singing for largely white, non-gospel
audiences, and he has learned to take it in stride. "Sometimes
you get to places where they enjoy you tremendously, but they're
tensed up a little bit, they're a bit conservative," he says.
"When that happens, we just have to work a little harder. And
for the most part, we can involve them and get them to do their
share. In a couple of places on this tour, we've had standing ovations
before we even finished our set."
Now, the tour is winding down and the Sunlights are looking forward
to getting off the road, back to their families and businesses.
And back to singing where they started out, in the churches around
Birmingham. "You don't have too many groups doing this music
anymore, so we stay relatively busy," Taylor says. "There
are a lot of older members of the church and these are songs they
can identify with. But you know, the young people like it too, because
there is a feeling that is generated in this kind of music that
you can't find anywhere else, a feeling that old people and young
people can understand."
to the Archive Contents page
By Elijah Wald (published in Sing Out! 1993)
Tarika Sammy are a sound man's nightmare. Like a Malagasy New Lost
City Ramblers, they change and rotate instruments constantly. All
the instruments are acoustic and the range of tone and timbre is
extreme, from guitar to concertina to a two-sided box zither. And
Tarika Sammy are not satisfied with a laid-back, folksy sound. As
the band runs through its sound check at Johnny D's Uptown Lounge
in Somerville, Massachusetts, lead vocalist Hanitrarivo Rasoanaivo,
known as Hanitra, is singing to the sound man that the volume needs
to come up. "We need it really loud, like heavy metal,"
she sings, dancing in time, her finger jabbing towards the ceiling.
"Otherwise the energy is gone out the window like the wind."
Tarika Sammy are part of a new wave of music from Madagascar, a
flood of varied and beautiful styles and fusions that incorporate
Malagasy traditions, outside influences, and individual inspiration.
The scene on stage is symbolic of the new approach. Samoela Andriamalalaharijaona,
or Sammy, and his cousin Solomon Ratianarinaivo, or Tiana, are playing
traditional instruments made from hand-carved wooden boxes, gourds,
and pieces of bamboo. Beside them, Hanitra and her sister Tina Norosoa
Raharimalala, or Noro, dance in skin-tight neon stretch pants and
t-shirts. Only their tall, colorfully-embroidered hats carry a whiff
of island exotica, and they bought the hats yesterday in Northampton.
"Before I came in the group, Sammy tried very hard to wear
the traditional clothes," Hanitra explains. "He would
sit and play his valiha and people would come from abroad and say,
'Oh, yes, a traditional musician.' But the truth is we're dynamic,
young, very modern--we've been studying at the university, we follow
fashion. We don't use modern instruments, but our music is modern
because we play it in the 20th century. We take the attitude of
people now, people like rock and roll, heavy metal. I always tell
my sound guy, saying 'Make us sound loud and punchy,' because that's
what it is. We stand up, we dance. It's not the folky traditional
musicians who just play classical things and sit around."
Though Tarika Sammy means "Sammy's Group," Hanitra is
the person responsible for the group's current line-up and much
of their musical approach. She writes lyrics, arranges vocal harmonies,
directs the stage show, and even designs the costumes with the help
of her older sister. The group's only fluent English-speaker, she
is also their spokesperson and a fervent crusader for traditional
Malagasy culture. She has written a Malagasy language instruction
book, and can hold forth volubly on the island's history and traditions.
Madagascar lies in the Indian Ocean, 250 miles off the East Coast
of Africa. Separated from the mainland some 160 million years ago,
it was not settled by humans until the 7th century and its culture
and language blend traditions from at least three continents. Looking
at Tarika Sammy, one would guess that they were from somewhere in
Polynesia. Photos of other Malagasy musicians suggest faces from
Central Africa or the Middle East. "There are so many people
who've been passing through Madagascar," Hanitra explains.
"Starting from the Arab settlers, the Indonesian, Portuguese,
then some African slaves have been brought and taken both to and
from Brazil, then French people came and colonized us, then the
Welsh missionaries came and translated our words into writing. Our
language has been discussed as being based on Malay-Polynesian languages,
and maybe Bantu from Africa too, and from Indonesia. So many things
are going on in it."
Madagascar has between 18 and 21 tribes or ethnic groups, all of
whom speak dialects of Malagasy. (Maybe the Welsh are to blame,
but Malagasy orthography is pretty strange. The final y's seem to
be silent, as are plenty of other vowels. Hanitra's name, for example,
sounds more or less like "Hant," Tiana's like "Teen.")
While the tribes can all understand one another, and there is quite
a bit of cultural overlap, each has its own musical style and even
its own instruments.
"Each tribe would concentrate on its particular instrument,"
Hanitra says. "For example, we are from the Merina tribe, and
therefore we should concentrate on the valiha. Now, what we've done
is to bridge these boundaries between tribes. We've taken all the
instruments, which is traditional instruments, and we've taken all
the rhythms, which is traditional rhythms from wherever Madagascar
started, and we've mixed it all together.
"Now, you must understand, it's not like a sampler of from
all the ethnies; it's a combination of them all. In other words,
if you take a song, say "Rabeza" for instance: "Rabeza"
is played on a jejy voatavo, which is an instrument from the Betvalihu
[note to the editor: please try to get the right spelling] tribe,
but the rhythm is from the Sakalava tribe, and the singing is the
harmony from our tribe. So the three combined together gives our
music. This is why I call our music semi-traditional, because there's
no other group in Madagascar who's ever done this. There's no group
who's gonna come up with all the different tribes' instruments and
play it all."
If Tarika Sammy's contemporary blend and flash comes from Hanitra,
it's musical foundation is Sammy's instrumental virtuosity. As he
explained, speaking in French, he started off playing flute, then
learned guitar and all the other instruments in Madagascar. He was
not able to travel and see all the regional styles in their native
locale, but since he lived in the capital he met musicians at national
festivals and was able to trade licks and ideas. If one mentions
any well-known Malagasy musician, Sammy can demonstrate their playing
style and explain the intricacies of their music. Though he talks
quietly and without any suggestion of self-promotion, he is confident
that he is the only musician in Madagascar who can truly play all
the styles and instruments. "It's a gift," he says. "I
can just pick up any instrument and play it. I can play with anyone,
jazz musicians, rock musicians, whatever." Asked about the
Malagasy guitar virtuoso D'Gary, he instantly took his guitar, re-tuned
it, and gave a quick demonstration of D'Gary's style. When someone
compared his playing to that of the West African griots, he used
his valiha to give a perfect imitation of the kora style of Demba
Konte, whom he met in London.
Like most traditional Malagasy musicians, Sammy also makes his
own instruments, though recently he has started to have some made
to his specifications by European luthiers. Except for the guitar,
all the group's instruments are unique to the island. The valiha
is a tubular stalk of bamboo with strings running lengthwise all
around it, played with one hand on either side of the tube. Sammy
says that traditionally valiha makers used strings peeled from the
inside of the bamboo tube, and later unwound bicycle break cables
and the copper wire coils from electrical motors, but now he uses
regular guitar or piano strings. His valiha is tuned to a diatonic
scale, but he says that traditional players all have their own tunings.
Asked if this means that musicians can only play their own valihas,
he smilingly says "I can play the others', but they usually
cannot play mine."
For the rest of the instruments: The marovany is a flat wooden
box with a zither-like arrangement of strings on both sides. The
kabosy is like a baritone ukelele, except that the frets are irregular,
some only extending under two strings. The lokanga bara is a three-string
fiddle. The jejy voatavo has a wooden neck and a gourd resonator,
and Sammy's is his own invention; he has changed the shape of the
neck, added frets and put an extra set of strings on the side, giving
himself two surfaces which he plays simultaneously. Most of the
instruments are diatonic, so the group carries several in different
tunings, and the variety of shapes, woods, and carving styles is
Sammy formed the first incarnation of Tarika Sammy in 1980 with
Tiana, who was originally a keyboard player, and a shifting group
of friends. "He kept having the different members of the group
changing, but Tiana and Sammy were always there," Hanitra remembers.
"Ever since 1980 he was existing, but not really seen, not
really understood. People did not really care about it that much,
because for us this music is just part of life. So what? It's not
novelty. So he never did shows or anything like that. But despite
all that, when people from the West went to Madagascar who were
interested in Malagasy music, they found it interesting to see all
these instruments that he was playing. So he always got one or two
tracks in different compilations."
The first recording was in 1986, two tracks of an anthology of
Malagasy popular music on the English Globestyle label. Next came
two cuts on Shanachie Records' critically acclaimed A World Out
of Time, which featured Malagasy bands playing with Westerners Henry
Kaiser and David Lindley. If the '86 recording gave Sammy the strength
to keep going, Hanitra says that by the time Kaiser and Lindley
arrived in 1991 he was thoroughly discouraged. "Just when he
was doing that recording, Sammy came up to me and said 'I'm Giving
up. I'm not going to do this any more.' I said 'Why is this?' He
said 'I can't earn my living, I can't have any money. Nobody pays
"I was very sad," she continues. "I was a translator
then and worked at the consulate of Madagascar in London, and I
said 'No, I'm going to give that up. I'm going to help you doing
this and we're gonna change the whole attitude of this traditional
music; I'm going to make it possible so that people will take us
seriously.' My sister worked in the post office and I said 'Give
that up and come with me.'
Their arrival changed the whole flavor of the group. "What
we are doing now is very, very different," Hanitra says. "In
fact, the group could have been called Tarika Hanitra, but I respect
man and I respect Sammy, so I keep the name like that." Hanitra
lives in England, and the new group's debut album, Fanafody, was
recorded there with help from John Kirkpatrick, Ian Anderson, and
two of the 3 Mustaphas 3. It features strong, four-part harmonies
and rippling, dancing string lines, as well as Sammy's lovely flute
playing. The songs are immensely varied, from ethereal, slightly
Asian melodies to bouncy dance numbers.
The English players blend in nicely, adding occasional accordion
or guitar, or the Mustaphas' Afro-pop bass and drums under the more
up-beat numbers. "I didn't want the whole idea of Tarika Sammy
to change completely, to become something like an electrified group,
rather than us," Hanitra says. "But I am happy with the
result, because it was a very light touch. When we play now, we
can be just us four doing the whole record, but that was like an
experience. In the beginning, the rhythm section didn't have an
idea what Malagasy music was all about. Even when to count, which
is number one beat, because we count in different manners. It was
nice, though, because they were really great musicians, and I think
it's a very good balance and it's just perfect to introduce us to
Most of the songs on Fanafody are written or arranged by Sammy,
but the group's newer songs tend to come from Hanitra. As she explains:
"When that was done, I just wanted to preserve all the music
that Sammy has written, with everything slightly rearranged from
the way he did it before. But the things we're doing on stage now
is basically all either written by me and I ask him to put the music,
or rearranged by me. Basically, how we create our music is I will
write a song, I will have a tune in my mind, and then I will sing
it and keep it on a tape and I will say to Sammy, 'OK, let's try
the valiha on this' or 'Let's try marovany,' and he will do something
and then we will combine us four and see how it works."
Although Hanitra and Noro had never considered a career in music,
they have sung together since childhood. "We belong to a singing
family, a harmony-singing family," Hanitra says. "We never
played accompanied with instruments, but very strong vocal harmonies.
My mom and dad sang when they met each other and we sing every day
in our life. Sometimes it's songs like what was my grandfathers
song; sometimes it's something that we hear on the radio, then we
repeat it, but we repeat it with harmonies. Mom and dad would sing,
and my brother would follow them and then my sister and then me
and Noro, and each one of us cannot stand singing without finding
a different harmony. So there are six of us and there are six harmonies.
We've performed for traditional ceremonies, wedding ceremonies,
circumcision ceremonies. Any ceremonies whatsoever, people always
call my family to sing."
Nonetheless, the idea of becoming professional musicians was completely
foreign. "When we said 'Mom and dad, we're gonna become a musician'
they just flipped," she recalls. "We said 'You know, we
can be paid by doing this abroad,' and they wouldn't believe it.
They said 'I don't understand that. How come do these people would
like to pay for you to entertain them? How come can't they just
stand up and dance for themselves, and entertain themselves?'"
Hanitra leans forward. "Do you understand? They are not understanding
of the concept of music as something to be paid for and to be played
in a place like this, with a special microphone. It does not exist
in Madagascar. There is not even one concert hall. It is not the
same concept here and in Europe and in Madagascar, because music
is like part of our life rather than something separate. Nobody
has ever earned their living by playing music in Madagascar. We
are the first ones."
While most African music is played and sung by non-professionals,
in many areas there are also musicians and musical families who
play sophisticated, "classical" styles developed for the
royal courts. Hanitra says that Madagascar is an exception. "There
was a king, and there were musicians who played for him, but not
really like professionals. They were good singers and they were
invited by the kings to be there and probably yes, because they
have been given their food you can call it a kind of profession,
but the music was not special. The musicians play whatever they
play and then the king says 'OK, I have a piano, you should now
start playing the piano and sing around that,' and so that's what's
happening afterwards. Still these days there's a lot of harmony
singing around the piano in Madagascar."
While there may have been no full-time musicians, certain players
became known for their musical abilities and respected as masters
of their instruments. Hanitra says that a special moment of Tarika
Sammy's American tour came in Seattle, where they appeared on a
program with Sylvestre Randafysan, a valiha master now living in
the U.S. "He is a famous player, an older musician," she
says. " He is of the same tribe as us, and he is a traditional
player, he doesn't play anything but valiha. I greatly respect him,
and he was there opening our gig. So when we were going to play
we prayed, said God, would he like us or would he not? Because there's
only two answers. He would hate us, because what are we doing? Something
totally different, it's so modern, and we are playing somebody else's
instruments, different tribes' instruments. Or, he's gonna like
"So he opened for us. He did what he did and it was beautiful,
people really liked it. Then, when we went up and played, after
that he came up to us and said, 'My God, I've never seen anybody
like you.' I said 'What do you mean?' He said 'You are extra good,
and I wish you good luck.' He was ever so appreciative and I couldn't
believe it. So we said 'Why do you like us so much?' And he said,
'It's the energy and the dynamism, the charisma. It sounds totally
different, but it sounds so good.' He was very happy, because he
had these students coming to the hall to see and he could prove
to them that there's so many things going on in Madagascar."
Indeed, Madagascar seems to be going through several centuries
of musical evolution in a decade. "Madagascar's been isolated
for a long, long time and it's only been opened up to the rest of
the world for maybe five years or so," Hanitra says. "We
hear radio, but only Radio Malagasy, which speaks for only twelve
hours and nothing but Malagasy music. People in the coastal area,
they can get the wave of Mozambique every now and then during a
certain time of night, and these are the guys who will play you
real African rhythms. They can do it, because they listen to the
radio. We in the center island, no, whatsoever.
"Right now, though, there's so many things coming up all together
at the same time, because we've opened up to everybody--South Africa,
America, Europeans, everything. So it comes: jazz, pop, heavy metal,
reggae, whatever, and everybody picks whatever they want to pick.
It is now a very hard time for Tarika Sammy to struggle out and
just keep on playing traditional music. But yet it worked. Suddenly,
people out here was interested more in the traditional music than
in the electric equipment. Now people like Rossy, a pop star with
all his electric equipments, changed to traditional music, because
of us. That is my big pride. And it's not only him. There are others
playing like heavy metal, like variete Francaise (sp?), and these
people actually come to us and say to Sammy 'Where do you get these
instruments? What's that song?'
"So we are winning now, we are really doing very well compared
to the others. And with all the other musicians in Madagascar, there
are so many great musicians, that really I'm impressed with my group.
But this is what we do, this is what Sammy does. If this doesn't
work, we will give up, because we can't do anything else. I can't
change and become a saxophone player, or blues player. Whereas in
other groups, in Rossy group for instance, maybe he can change and
become something like an African musician, play guitar like a Zairean."
To the non-Malagasy listener, Tarika Sammy's music seems to have
a strong African influence, suggesting Kenyan guitar styles and
South African vocal harmonies. Hanitra, however, views "African
music" as something completely foreign and different. "Our
music is not at all African, except one song that we've just invented
very recently," she says. "When people ask 'Are you Africans?'
we don't know really the answer. Especially the Merina tribe says
we are not. We don't really like being called Africans. We don't
see the similarities. We look at ourselves and we don't look like
them, and we don't think like them, so how come are we Africans?
It's a land that was once upon a time part of Africa, but we were
not born till the 1960s. We are totally different people.
"But yes, on the other hand, there are people now who have
never heard African musicians and who have never been to Africa,
who play something slightly African. We've created this one song,
one song just to make people even more confused, and to show people
how many varieties we have in Madagascar. I was walking around in
the southern part of Madagascar, and there is these two little boys,
one has a small kabosy and he plays with very nice rhythm. And I
thought 'How come? Where did he get it from?' I could not answer.
So that is too a kind of music which we have there and every time
we do that song people say 'Ah, that makes it clear. Yes, you are
Africans.' And we don't know, we are not sure of it, but yes, maybe
Meanwhile, Hanitra is amused by all the comparisons. "I have
been amazed at all the names people have been giving us," she
says. "They have called us Tahitian, they have called us like
the Voix de Bulgares. They all try to relate us to something. They
say 'Oh, you sound very much like the Zulus,' which I don't think
we sound like whatsoever, but they say so anyway. I've collected
all the names now, because it's so fascinating."
The one connection that she has found striking is perhaps the strangest
of all. "There is a harmony in Hawaiian music, which I didn't
know until I came here and they made me listen, and I said 'God,
our ancestors must have been Hawaiian too.' And right at this moment,
nobody knows where do we really come from, all the Malagasy, so
maybe there has been some Hawaiian people too."
Wherever Malagasy music may have come from, Hanitra is clearly
very happy with where it and Tarika Sammy are going. While other
countries have seen their local musics crushed under the juggernaut
of Western pop, Malagasy music seems to be flourishing in the light
of world attention. "It's like a big pride," she says.
"As far as we're concerned, we've succeeded in what I wanted
to do, which is to keep this traditional music going on. And I didn't
want Sammy to give up, I wanted to help him a lot. That's number
one thing. So I'm happy he's happy now. Number two, I wanted to
show to the rest of the world what real Malagasy music is all about.
And third, I wanted to teach the Malagasy people that traditional
things are good, so keep on to them. Which is now happening, and
which makes me really happy. Even if we give up now, I'm happy,
because people back home are now starting to do it."
And, for the moment, Hanitra has no intention of giving up. "I
can say now, because of the money we get here we can just go home
and live in the beach with swimming pool and all the nice life,
because we've got a lot of money in the Malagasy standard of living.
But no, I love it. After five years of doing this, or ten years,
I don't know. We're used to a sort of low pace of life in Madagascar,
no rush kind of life, so this rhythm could probably put my friends
off after a while, they will probably say, 'No, I don't want to
do a concert every night.' But then again, I have to admit that
all the family are very happy with the money that we take back home,
so there is no complaints. So it's a good thing, and maybe we're
gonna do it for the rest of our lives."
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