Deitra Farr o Matthew Skoller - foto; Paul Natkin
Matthew Skoller is considered one of Chicago’s top blues artists, and as an instrumentalist a “Blues Harmonica Wizard”. In his career he has spent time living in Milwaukee, Chicago, and Paris and has toured in Europe, Africa, Japan, and of course the US as bandleader, singer, songwriter with his own The Mathew Skoller Band. He has recorded with many high class artists and released five of his own records. He produced albums with Lurrie Bell, and participated in all volumes of the multi awarded Chicago Blues: A Living History. And he established the super group Chicago Wind, in collaboration with Deitra Farr.
Singer & Songwriter.
- You’re a singer/songwriter, and I would say your lyrics are kind of intellectual.
- Yeah. You could say that, absolutely. I write what I’m passionate about. And I am very analytical and profoundly affected by my environment. So, I respond to that, which I’m passionate about. If those subjects are intellectual, yeah, then my songs are intellectual.
- In a political way, that you’re concerned about.
- There’s that. I also write about love and tension between partners. To make this distinction between the two is very difficult for me, because I see them as one thing. I did a song the other day at an art gallery. We were doing a resistance concert in a small art gallery, filled with supporters of antifascist art. The theme was the songs of resistance. I had Eddie Taylor Jr. with me, the son of the great guitar player Eddie Taylor. I’m always inspired to do Jimmy Reed songs with him, because he plays so much as like his father. There’s a song I do with him called Caress Me Baby. I introduced it as a political song of resistance. And the other songs, that were topical, were love songs that sounded like political songs of resistance. I want people to know about this system of capitalism that we live under. One of the ways that capitalist philosophy system works is to train people to be devoid of empathy and compassion. A song like Caress Me Baby, which is all about compassion, empathy and love for one another. It’s a song of resistance, because it directly acknowledges that empathy and compassion are natural components of human beings. And as artist to spread that, to be that, to sing about that, and make art about that, is an act of subversion. It’s trying to do something that will go against some of the premises of this system.
- Though some songs are political loaded, they are still poetic. How do you handle that?
- It just comes. I’m a word guy, and I love words. I just have a certain sense of them, and they come to me, it just flows. Usually, when I write a song it happens very quickly. Sometimes I have to work at it, but other times it really comes out all at once. It’s a natural thing
Larry Skoller, Matthew Skoller. Foto: Okänd
- Your harmonica playing is kind of political too. You don’t just jump up and blow, you play melodies in poetic scales. Did it take a long time to learn that style?
- It’s taken a really long time to get to where I am right now. And I’m not where I want to be.
But I think that’s part of the artistic process. And I think that once you’re satisfied with the way you are, you’re through. I just keep working hard, and that instrument is really tough
I asked Louis Myers, the great guitar player for The Aces and Little Walter, who was also a magnificent harmonica player. -“Why the guitar, you’re such a great harmonica player”?
Back in the days, there was lot of bands that didn’t have a harmonica. He could have worked a lot as a harmonica player. He shook his head, and he said that he had to leave the harmonica alone. “Because it was about to drive him crazy”, ha, ha, ha. And he was serious as a heart attack. It’s a really tough instrument. Especially to be able to find those melodies. And be able to vary with such a small instrument. Though it’s limitless, it’s very easy to get stuck in one area of it. You listen to the phrasing of Little Walter, which might have been another reason why it drove him crazy. Because he was around him, he was Little Walter’s guitar player. And he heard how this guy could create melodies, almost where it was impossible to do it. If you listen really closely, it’s as much the notes that he doesn’t play, that inform the melodic structure of a line. Rather, than the notes that he does play. And sometimes I would play what I think is the melody and line that he came up with. And I relisten to it, and I realize that I’m playing more notes than he was. Actually he implied notes, and didn’t really play them.
It’s a difficult instrument and it’s taken a really long time to get to where I am right now.
The difference between my harp playing now, and 30 years ago, is that I’m a different harp player. I just keep working, and I have been inspired by people like Sugar Blue. I remember him between the time he was 40 and 50 years old. He would just sit and work, and work, and work on. And I heard him trying to do certain techniques. By the time he was 50 he had mastered them, and was moving on to other stuff. That’s the kind of hard work, and discipline and dedication that have inspired me over the years. I really take my hat off to Sugar, because he’s a great talent, but he’s also an amazingly hard worker. That work effect, I think is an important lesson for all musicians.
- Were you inspired by melodic players, like Toots Thielemans?
- No I really wasn’t. It was really the blues guys that I listened a lot to. A little bit of jazz horn players. I did steal some of the lines from Gene Ammons, I mean; I got to be honest about it. But mostly listened to a lot of blues harmonica players. Big Walter was a huge, huge influence, Sonny Boy II a huge influence too. And of course Little Walter, who takes you to school every time.
- You seem to play with a temperament, following reactions and moods of a song?
- Part of that is because I work with ensembles. And that I have completely learned by ear. I have an embarrassingly little amount of music theory. Everything has been done by listening.
So, when you’re up on stage playing with musicians who are creative, and who don’t play the songs the same exact way every time, but play to the moment. What they play really determines what I guess you have, and where you can go. So, this notion that you can sort of recreate exact songs, either of your own, or of somebody else’s. The “archivist’s approach”, as I call it. When you have a piece, that Big Walter or Little Walter did. You play it note for note, and you use their ideas. Sometimes that’s not going to work, if the bass player and the drummer aren’t playing exactly what his bass player and drummer played. You have to be in the moment, and you have to allow the stimulus that surrounds you. To determine what you’re going to do. You don’t have much of a choice, if you’re really listening at what’s happening in the moment.
Blues Immigrant CD
- How many records did you release?
- Five. It started with Born to pick in 1996. Then came Shoulder To The Wind in 1999, that was followed by Taproot in 2003 and These Kind Of Blues in 2005. The latest was Blues Immigrant in 2016. All released on Tongue ’n Groove Records. But I played harmonica with about 15 other artists and bands, since my recording debut with Big Daddy Kinsey in 1989.
- Your Blues Immigrant CD was on the 2018 Grammy Ballot. You had a co-producer, who is also a harmonica player and friend, Vincent Bucher with it.
- We have known each other for 33 years, so it’s a really long relationship. With these particular songs, I went to Paris maybe a year and a half before we put the record out. We sat down in a little studio apartment, and I had lyrics and basic melodies and stuff. Vincent is just a brilliant arranger, just brilliant! In fact, in some cases it went way beyond arrangements.
He was actually really changing the musical structure of the songs, in many cases. We made demos of them. And I didn’t realize how completed the songs were, after I left. I thought we still had to work on this. But 90% of them were finished, and I didn’t even know it. Once we got live musicians and rehearsed with them, I realized how powerful the songs were. All of that is true for all the songs, except for the title cut, which is Blues Immigrant. I wrote it after all the songs were ready to be recorded. Vincent had come into town to work with the studio musicians, before we went in and recorded.
We rehearsed, and I said; “hey man, I got these words; blues immigrant”. I woke up in about 4:30 in the morning, and I was sitting there thinking about my relationship to the blues music.
I used to use the metaphor of being the visitor, a welcomed visitor. And it bothered me. I think it was my big brother Jeffrey who said; -“How well do you have to speak blues, before you stop being a visitor”? He was right, and I thought to myself, that I’m more of an immigrant, than I’m a visitor. I thought about it, and at 4:30 in the morning I started writing. By 6 o’clock in the morning the song was pretty much written.
It was such an epic thing that goes from the time my grand parents immigrated into the United States. I vividly remembered when they killed Dr. Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy. I was in a much politicised house, I was only 5 years old, but I remember getting up in the morning. I remember what I looked at on TV. I still have the buttons that we got in Washington Square Park, in Greenwich Village. That I had the picture of Martin Luther King on them saying; “I have a dream”.
Matthew Skoller - Foto: Al Brandtner (Also the next picture down below)
- So, you were born in New York, some 50 years ago?
- I was born in New York, but I grew up some everywhere. I was worse than an army brat, I was a university brat. My dad opened up film departments in universities and colleges, during the time when film departments didn’t really exist. They were part of the speech departments, or the theatre departments. And they suddenly became parts of the schools of fine arts. He was a kind of pioneer in developing curriculum for film schools. I’m the only one in the family that wasn’t born in Brooklyn. I was born in upstate New York. The whole family is from Brooklyn. I visited my grand parents there, many times as a child. We moved from upstate New York back to New York City, and we lived in the Village. Then he got a position at UCLA, so we moved out to Los Angeles for 2 years. Then we moved back to New York City. This was a very dangerous and very rough place, in the early 1970’s. It was gritty and dirty, and a lot of gang violence. Our father moved us up to Vermont, which is 700 miles north. He commuted three days a week in the city, and he came back and spent 4 days, way out in the country. In what they refer to as “the north east kingdom”, in Vermont, which is of the northerly parts of the state, about one hour from Montreal, Canada.
Then we moved from there to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This put me in proximity to folks from the great migration. Just as there were so many blues players from Mississippi and the delta region in Chicago, there were a lot of them in Milwaukee too. It’s interesting, because when I later moved to Paris, Milwaukee in Paris was considered a really heavy blues town. They actually knew more about the blues people in Milwaukee, than people in the United States did. Because they had had so many of them coming through Paris. When I said I was from Milwaukee, nobody chuckled. Here in Chicago, they would laugh at you. -“You’re from Milwaukee, how’s the cheese and beer, and polish sausage”?
Then in 1981, I was going to school for two semesters of college, that I had in Madison, WI. So, I was staying in Madison, on Williamson Street. And just about five blocks from my house, was a club called the Havana Club. They brought up Sunnyland Slim, Dave and Louis Myers, who were known as The Aces. And younger bands like Rod Piazza & The Mighty Flyers. They brought up Carey Bell and Magic Slim & The Teardrops. With Coleman “Daddy Rabbit” Pettis, and Alabama Junior, who was before John Primer. Sunnyland Slim came up with a young woman singer, in her early 30’s, named Zora Young. I met all of these folks and really got on well with them.
But there was a very vibrant and amazing blues scene, with incredible obscure blues players. That has died, or is still up there, still basically undiscovered and old now. And there were a lot of other great musicians there, when I came up. On my Blues Immigrant record, I have a great musician in Brian Ritchie, the amazing bass player from The Violent Femmes. He’s playing the Shakuhachi, a Japanese flute. He wrote all of the music for their really well known songs, and he was a very influential musician. He came out of there, Jerry Harrison, from the Talking Heads, also came out of there. You had a band, that stole my piano player Susan Julian, at one point, coming up, called the BoDeans. They were a very famous rock band that came out of there. Al Jarreau came out of there. The list goes on, and on. There is a harmonica player up there, a legend named Jim Liban, who had a huge influence on me. A huge influence on Vincent also. And pretty much anybody that plays harmonica, since he came on the set, which was in the late 60’s. He’s influential in some ways, and he’s also fairly obscure, He’s kind of in semi retirement now, but he’s a “Robocop harmonica player”, ha, ha, ha! And nobody to fool with, but another guy who’s got amazing ideas, and an incredible musician.
I was started in Milwaukee and I had a band with one of these blues guys named Stokes. Who was just an amazing bluesman, with an amazing voice, and an incredible guitar player. He could sound like everybody, from B.B. King to Lighting Hopkins. But never losing his own voice in doing so, and had his own style as well. I had a band with him called The Raw Rockers. In 1984 we’d been together a couple of years. After a stint in Paris, for 10-11 months, I went back to Milwaukee. I put the band back together again, and stayed there for two years, from 1985 until 1987. I came back and added a piano player and singer to the group, Susan Julian, who eventually the BoDeans took from us.
The first person ever to get me on stage, with a real Chicago blues band, was Magic Slim.
I became really good friends with him and his band, particularly with his drummer Nate Applewhite. Nate had me come down to Chicago, and had me stay at his place. This was a house on the South Side, where he and his brothers, sisters, mother and father lived. I met the whole family, and we cooked Buffalo Catfish. And I had my first really deep South Side experience, with some really beautiful people. Who were some of the heaviest musicians that made up an amazing music scene. His brother Herman Applewhite, was at the time the bass player for James Cotton. And he was one of my favourite bass players. I got to meet all these people, who I was listening to since I was a kid. By the time I moved down to Chicago, I knew almost everybody, euphemistically I knew everybody. Quite naturally I moved down from Milwaukee to Chicago. It was a natural move, and I’ve been here for 30 years.
- But you had some experiences in Paris too?
- At a certain point in 1984, I thought like I needed to go to France. My mother was a real lover of French culture. I sort of learned that from her. I had kind of a scholastic background in French grammar and vocabulary, but couldn’t really speak it. I figured emerging was the best route to learning another language. And I wanted to expand my experience. So, I took two big duffel bags and 500 dollars, and hit the streets of Paris. I started at an auberge de jeunesse, (youth hostel). There I met Tao Ravao, who is a partner of Vincent Bucher. He lived in an apartment building, in a small chambre de bonne, (maid’s room). I had been in Paris a couple of weeks at the time, and been staying in little sleazy hotels. He saw where I was staying and said; “Pack your shit up, nobody in the tribe stays here”. So he moved me into his room, which was the size of a closet. I slept on the floor, he slept on the bed.
We started playing in the streets, basking in the streets, and in the train cars. We went around and auditioned at several places. Within a month, we had like 5-6 club gigs a week. But we were serious about it, and we used those chops really efficiently. We got a job at the Memphis Melody, which was a club owned by Memphis Slim. It was run by the Jewish mafia, literally. They were open until 6 in the morning. So, we had 4 gigs a week there. Tuesdays, we would play from 10 to 12 am, and at nights we played from 4 to 6 in the morning. It was two storeys down in those caves of Paris. There was a Boulangerie Patisserie that was right next to it. We got the pain chocolate, which was still molten chocolate. Because it just came out of the oven, We’d sleep until 3-4 in the afternoon. It was dead of winter, it was dark already, and we’d go and do it again.
In Paris I met Billy Branch and Carl Weathersby. I was playing at a little club called Dinner Jazz Club. And Carl and Billy were playing at a big theatre called La Mutualite, which was right down the street. During my break, I walked down over there, and I kind of bullshitted my way in. Assuring the bouncer that I wasn’t going to stay, but I just needed to talk to Billy and Carl. So, they let me in, and they said that they would come thru. And sure enough, at midnight, in walked Billy Branch and Carl Weathersby. We partied and played blues until about 4 o’clock in the morning. They never forgot that, and I never forgot it.
- When did you move to Chicago, eventually?
- I decided that if I was going to do this, I should live in Chicago, and do it there. When I moved to Chicago, Billy branch welcomed me with open arms, and was like a big brother.
And he gave me a lot of stage time. At that time, he had broken up with J.W. Williams, because the band had been J.W. Williams & Chi-Town Hustlers / Sons of Blues. I guess they thought the name was too long. So, they separated, J.W. continued the Chi-Town Hustlers, and when he heard I was in town he hired me. So, I worked simultaneously with J.W. and Deitra Farr, who called me just after a few weeks of being in Chicago. She had every Tuesday down at Blue Chicago, so I got that gig. Then Big Time Sarah also hired me, for Mondays at Blues Etc. So, I played there every Tuesday, and at Blue Chicago with Deitra. I was doing Chi-Town Hustlers gigs, on the weekends that I wasn’t working with Deitra. Then I had every Wednesday nights up in Milwaukee still. My band The Raw Rockers had a residency at a club called Up & Under. So, I was working Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and every weekend. They had told me that I would starve, trying to make a living playing music down in Chicago. My biggest problem was trying to make decisions about who to work with.
Then I was honoured to get a phone call, after Little Joe Berson tragically died, very prematurely in his med 30’s. He was Jimmy Rogers’s harmonica player. I was sleeping when taking a nap at about 7 o’clock in the evening, when the phone rang. I jumped up, like all hungry musicians do, when they hear the phone ring, just before gig time. And thinking maybe somebody needs a harp player tonight. And sure enough, I answered the phone and the guy says; -“Hi, is Matthew there? This is Jimmy Rogers”. I replied; “Yeah and I’m Muddy Waters, who the fuck is this”? He pauses for a second and very perfunctorily repeats; “This is Jimmy Rogers”. I said; “Excuse me sir, what can I do for you”? “I heard you’re a good harmonica player. I need somebody to play with me down at Lily’s tonight. Would you like to do the gig”? I said; “What time”? So I worked with him for several gigs. With Big Moose Walker, Ted Harvey, and there was a bass player named Frank Bandy. And there was Jimmy D Lane, who is Jimmy Rogers’s son. I went down, I got the gig, and he said; “You’re my harp player now”.
At the same time, The Kinsey Report was really probably the most celebrated new group on the set. Their father, Big Daddy Kinsey, was a Muddy Waters style singer and slide guitarist.
He had heard me play and wanted me in his band, which were travelling all over the world.
They wanted me to do a record with Big Daddy, which was eventually put out on Blind Pig Records, called Can’t Let Go. It was the only chance I got to be on vinyl, that actually still existed, and CD’s was just coming in. So, I went to Jimmy Rogers and told him that Big Daddy was asking me to come in his band. - “I want to talk to you about it, because I will stay with you. It’s such a great honour and such a great education to play with you”. He said; “I’m going out on the road a lot without my band, so take the job”. He was paying 40 bucks a night, and the Kinsey Report was out there on the road, and were paying a 100 bucks a night. I was very poor, so I really financially had to make a decision. Also career wise, because they were playing everywhere. And they would put me on the map, being associated with them. A lot of people would see me and hear me. Besides the fact that they were a great band and they were making really good music. And literally, just a few weeks after Jimmy Rogers hired me I was off with the Kinsey Report.
I spent about a year with them. And I realized that if I was ever going to support myself, in a real way doing this, I would have to be a bandleader. And that I would have to put my own band together. So, at that point I enlisted my brother Larry Skoller, and Al Brown from Gloria Hardiman’s band. We had all played together. And I used a couple of different drummers. Freddie Williams was in my band at first, along with Jim Schutte. Actually, Jim was in another side project I did, called The Blue Diamonds. But it all was leading towards The Matthew Skoller Band. When I got with Al Brown joining the band, he said; -“You got to call this The Matthew Skoller Band, because it’s your group”. I took his advice.
- But your mind was on producing, just as much as playing?
- Not back then, but I think that the only way that you can be a self promoter, and survive in this world of blues music or any kind of art really. It’s if you have a sense of that you create projects. And that you are entrepreneurial and creative. You organize all the things that go into being a producer. It wasn’t so much that I did it because I loved the notion of being a producer. I did it because that was the only way that anything would happen. Ha, ha, ha…
Later that changed, and as my production shops improved, I saw that there was a need for that, for other artists that I respected. Then it was quite natural for me, as I got more matured and more musically experienced, to produce people like Lurrie Bell. So, that happened much later. But the rest was just self promotion, trying to get things done, that I could have a career.
I did some very early Women of the Blues things. The first one was when I produced a show with Zora Young, Valerie Wellington and Big Time Sarah. If that’s not being taken to school, I don’t know what is, ha, ha, ha! Zora brought Carlos Johnson up, who later became like my big brother, and another big influence on me, musically. I put a show together with Pinetop Perkins with my group. I produced a Battle of Harmonicas, and it was an amazing event in 1987. I had a company called Raw Roots Productions. And I brought up Muddy Water’s rhythm section; Calvin Jones and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, just when I really got to know them. In my band, Billy Flynn played guitar, so did my brother Larry. I think we had Susan Julian on piano. I think she was still with The Raw Rockers at that point. After that, we did another one when I brought up Angela Brown, Big Time Sarah again and Susan Julian.
Lately, I produced a couple of records with Lurrie Bell. The first was called Let’s Talk About Love, in 2007. The second came out in 2012 and was called The Devil Ain’t Got No Music. I wrote the title track, which was nominated for The Blues Music Award’s Song of the Year.
Chicago Blues: A Living History
- You’re also involved in the records Chicago Blues: A Living history.
- My brother Larry Skoller came up with the whole concept, while he was in France. I think it was born out of him being a producer, trying to bring people over to his blues festival, that he is the artistic director for. Trying to book acts, with these revues of several different artists. And for many different reasons were very good ways of bringing blues over there. In other words, a lot of the blues people that are left, don’t have big, famous names. So they don’t draw enough people. To not worry about bringing over whole groups, they were put together. Didier Tricard did this for years, put together a good group and bring a “plateau”. Bring a revue of headliners.
That was initially planting the seed of the idea. But Larry developed this idea into something much more profound. This is, that you take a group and make it like a super group. And put together five of the heaviest bandleaders, to have them interpret the Chicago blues songbook, from 1940 to present day. And here’s the key; in a non archival way, but in a very fresh way. That is true to the tradition, in the sense that it was not a replication of anything that had happened. Nothing is more untraditional than replicating blues music. Because the whole tradition is based on the moment, it’s based on improvisation, and it’s based on telling your story. This is what Larry’s concept was, to have these guys come in and interpret these things. In a personal, and really traditionally blues way. Which means respecting the moment.
And that is technology, which is our époque, our time. I quote this a lot; Miles Davis said this perfect; “Music is a reflection of the rhythm, of your own time”.
My involvement was that I was the guy on the ground in Chicago. I mean, I knew all of these folks. Larry knew them too, but I worked with almost all of them. I had a very open door to them. And I have a very strong hold over Chicago blues history. I studied it essentially, since I was 15 years old. I came to, not only knowing the capabilities and pre-selections of each artist. My role, not only as a harmonic player on several songs, was to be in the studio, and be able to use my experience, to inform the production.
It was a great experience. The first production won a Grammy nomination. On the second production, I was able to produce songs with Buddy Guy, and work with him in the studio.
How cool is that, it was pretty amazing! And with Magic Slim, of course, who started me.
And then being there with someone like Billy Boy Arnold. I was able to give the harmonica players perspectives on what was going on, what was happening. And the same thing with Billy Branch. This is over all amazing experiences. I just basically used all of my experience and knowledge, to help the producer. I was officially the co-producer of the second volume, and I did as much work on the first one. My friend Carlos Johnson was there from the beginning. I really don’t know if we’re adding new people. It’s Larry’s project. And if we can do another one again, it’s still pending. It’s very expensive, and we have this financial support in Aulnay-Sous-Bois. They got a much more conservative and less focus on culture and art regime. We try to raise money, and again, this is Larry’s wheelhouse.
Chicago Wind - Foto; Paul Natkin bakre rad fr.v.; Johnny Iguana, Tom Holland, Mark Wilson, Felton Crews
främre; Deitra Farr, Matthew Skoller
I’m focused on Matthew Skoller and my song writing and my harmonica playing. I think that these kinds of projects that are historical projects and that are wonderful collaborations between bandleaders and musicians are great. And going out on tour with that was very challenging, but also quite an amazing experience. Being with all, these really experienced talented artists. But for me, it doesn’t really engender a lot of free self-expression. It’s got to be highly organized and regimented. We’re playing songs that are written by other people. That’s not what I’m in this for. I love being a part of it, and if they did another tour, or another record, I would definitely participate in it.
Honestly, that band which was referred to as The Living History Band was really my band for a long time before Living History happened. But with different musicians, coming in and out. The basic rhythm section; Kenny Smith, Felton Crews and Johnny Iguana. They were all with me for years. Felton has been with me on and off since the 90’s. That’s really a very similar group, without Kenny Smith, but with the addition of Marc Wilson. Who, in my esteem, is one of the greatest roots drummers alive today. That’s my focus, it’s original projects like this, and Chicago Wind in particular. I want to work on Matthew Skoller collaborating with Deitra Farr. And we put a group together called Chicago Wind. That’s my new project, that’s my focus, that’s were we’re going to.
Africa 2010 - foto; courtesy; Bill Sims Jr. fr.v. Kenny Smith, Larry Skoller, Bassekou Kouyate, Bill Sims Jr., Matthew Skoller
- You’ve been travelling around the world, including Africa?
- Yes, we had an opportunity with the state department, to go to several different African countries. It was the U.S. State Department based out of France. My brother Larry was living in France, so they contacted him. He is a very well known producer there and guitarist. The State Department has these tours that are kind of good will tours. They wanted musicians from the states to come over there. To try and do good will and diplomatic exchanges with people there. To try to combat terrorism and some of the really negative notions that people in those countries have of Americans.
I was there with Bill Sims Jr. of The Heritage Blues Orchestra, Kenny Smith on drums, and my brother Larry on guitar. We travelled to Tunisia at first, where we were a month before the “Arab Spring” jumped off, which was really amazing. We spent five days working with Tunisian students at a music school. As well as, performing at the embassy and doing other performances.
Then we went to Mauritania and played in Nouakchott, which is one of the big places.
Mauritania is a giant country, and we travelled west into the sub Saharan desert, to a little town called Alég. This is way, way, out in the desert, just in the middle of nowhere. We played for returnees. In that part of the world, there is a war between the lighter skinned Arab-Berbers, and the darker skinned black Africans. The Arab-Berbers had ousted many of the black citizens of that area. They were now coming back, so there were these refugees’ camps, which were housing them. With our gendarme escort and military, we performed in these camps. We also performed at a youth centre. And it’s just an incredible experience. We had lunch with the mayor of the town, who was very progressive, and he was organizing these events. So, we were performed for, as well as performing to people. They performed for us a theatre sketch about interracial marriages between the Arabs and blacks. They performed an AIDS awareness sketch. There were musicians there, who played N’goni. And other African instruments, that had been electrified with some distortion boxes. So, they played these very exotic contemporized versions of very traditional Mauritanian music. And then we met a Mauritanian singer, a woman singer named Malouma. She is also a senator in Mauritania, and a very famous politician. But also even before that, a very famous singer. So, we got to collaborate with her.
Then we went to Mali, which was just mind blowing. Because their export is music. Their whole culture, everybody is a musician, whether they called themselves one, or not. I got to play with one of the world renowned N’goni players, Bassekou Kouyate, who is one of the greatest. And I got to meet one of their greatest Malian guitar players, Djelimady Tounkara.
And, of course Boubacar Traoré, who Vincent Bucher had an over ten years relationship with musically, and has been on several of his CD’s. He toured all over Africa and the world with him. Traore is in his mid seventies, and a legendary acoustic guitar player and singer. We got to jam with him.
Then we went home, and came back a couple of months later to Cameroon. We played some really great shows in Yaounde. And then we went to some refugee camps. Cameroon is a wonderful place. They are of a less strict Muslim religion, and a little more of a looser culture. It’s also a very, very generous culture that allows a lot of refugees into their country. They are also a safe haven and refuge for African albinos, who are just horribly treated elsewhere. Albinos are considered evil and detriment, and there are horrible things done to them in Africa. So, they come to Cameroon, where there’s a safe haven there. We went to this giant refugee camp, maybe 400 miles away from Yaounde. There were all different kinds of African people there. From East Africa, and from West Africa. There was like a refugee camp of like 5000 people. It was this just huge celebration that we went to. And people did all kinds of expositions of their art and their culture. There were these Eastern African trance singers, who got up and did these songs for the dead. We took our pictures with them, right after they were done performing. I remember standing next to this guy, who had just done this trance singing. His whole body was shaking. He was still deep into his meditation. It was really wild, and an amazing experience. Africa was very much like a changing experience for me.
- Did you play acoustically?
- We did both, we played acoustically and electrically. It was a kind of a quartet without a bass, but two guitars, drums and harmonica. When we returned, we just did a trio, without Kenny on drums. So, when we were in Cameroon, it was me, Larry Skoller and Bill Sims Jr.
- Did you communicate in both French and English?
- I did, especially in Mali and in Tunisia, so I was able to use both languages. In Cameroon there were Anglophones and Francophones, if I remember correctly. It was an influence of French culture in Cameroon, because they had really good wine, ha, ha, ha…
- Can your African experience be useful playing blues in Chicago? (Matthew Skoller - foto; Steven Gardner)
- Yeah, I think so. All your experiences join together in a critical mass. But I think that the biggest take away for me, was how easily it was for me to fit into their music. It was just really natural, and they loved the harmonica. It’s a diatonic instrument, like I believe the N’goni is also a diatonic instrument. A lot of the lines were very similar. I also realized how some of the African music sounded nothing like blues music. And, that there are very different forms of music. There were certain grooves they did, that were blues intact. Just like Hoochie Coochie Man and like I’m A Man. But they were like; “No, no, this is our music! This is a very traditional groove that we play”. So, I learned a lot about the relationship, that there are some amazing similarities, but there are also huge differences. Our blues is very specifically African-American music, which comes out of a very specific set of social factors. That it transcends all of those things as a high art form. But it was born out of this very unique experience of American slavery. And of this mass kidnapping of people, and displacing them. And then torturing them, for centuries.
I’m not exactly sure how that experience applies to what I’m doing here specifically. But I think I look at blues and Chicago blues, with a more complete perspective now. I have to say that there were some moments in Africa, where I saw Bill Sims Jr. and Kenny Smith, who had never been to Africa before, been greeted by Africans as though they were welcoming them home. It was very moving. I mean, that’s a black country, that’s a black concept. Like when you’re a white person that comes out of a continent that is majority white. And you walk into a large hotel restaurant to sit down. You look around and realize that you’re the only white person there. You begin to understand what so many of your black brothers and sisters back home go through, when they walk into a restaurant in Iowa, ha, ha, ha. I think every white person should have that feeling. Maybe they would behave differently, when they see someone else in that position.
- Are there any highlights in your career that you want to talk about?
- It’s hard to pick one. It’s been a lot of moments. Even in this time of my life, after so many great legends have passed. I wake up in the morning, and I got a message from Eddie Taylor Jr. on my phone. I get a call from Lurrie Bell, and then me and Deitra Farr talk. Somebody like Carlos Johnson sends me an e-mail. I am surrounded by really high level amazing artists. I think if I had to characterize the highlights, it is that I’ve lived my life in a way that has surrounded me with the people that are at the top of my field. And that are really heavy artists, and really great people. And that I feel a sense of commodity, and a sense of arrival. I have felt this for many years. The highlight is that I’m here doing this with the cats and the kitten.
Keeping the blues alive
. So, you’re optimistic about keeping the blues alive?
- I think that term is absolutely ridiculous and presumptuous. Who are any of us to keep a force of nature alive? That’s like saying; “You guys are going to keep Mount Everest alive”. Blues is like the wind, man. Blues is way beyond anything that we have any control over. And for anybody to think that they’re keeping the blues alive is just embarrassingly presumptuous. The “keeping the blues alive award”, is comical to me. The blues keeps us alive. Thank you for asking that question! Because I have always felt that, especially people who says the blues is dying, or is dead. They are the same people who say that we have to save the planet. We have to save are own asses, it’s what we have to do! The planet is going to be just fine. Once we start irritating the planet a little too much, which we’re getting real close doing, Mother Earth will remove you, like a dog does its fleas. That’s what that’s about. And it’s the same thing with the blues. It’s a force of nature, brother. It’s not going anywhere.