San Francisco Bay Guardian
In an age of endless crossover between most conceivable forms of music, it’s but small surprise that a Caucasian man from Virginia is making blues with West African witch doctors. What rarely gets discussed in these cross-ocean collaborations is the social aspect of the fusion. What did the artists eat for lunch the day they recorded that track? In what language was the “and-a-one” that started off the first take?
We had the opportunity to chat over the phone with Bay Area artist Markus James, who has parlayed his time with Malian string musicians into elemental blues tracks. You can hear them on both his new album, Snakeskin Violin, and at his live show (at the Ashkenaz, Fri/22) with The Wassonrai, who are West African musicians that rep for jam band track longevity – strains of which James says is indigenous everywhere from Mali to Jackson, Mississippi — into their already formidable blend of blues past and present. James said (and we’re paraphrasing here) that the secret to fusion collaborations all lies in your location-resonation, but that’s just his perspective.
San Francisco Bay Guardian: When did you first hear African music? Did you know right at the start the depths you would dive into it?
Markus James: I don’t know if anyone really knows what is going to take them. The lights really went on for me when I heard Ali Farka Toure. He played traditional West African music on the electric guitar and it came out sounding like John Lee Hooker. That was where I really felt the powerful connection between all the music I grew up loving: rock, and soul music, and of course blues music, and the connection between that and its ancient roots in West Africa.
SFBG: What did African music pick up in the United States to become blues?
MJ: The roots of blues music go way back, specifically to pentatonic [five note as opposed to our eight note system] music traditions there. Pentatonic music really resonates with what we think of as blues music. There is a direct correlation between what I call country blues, or old school blues music, and some of these music traditions that I’m talking about in West Africa. Not just the notes and the musical scale, but the groove, the rhythm. For example, in West Africa women are often pounding the millet for that evening’s food. The have this six-foot tall piece of wood – it’s like a mortar and pestle. Another woman, or a girl, is scooping it back underneath so that the wood hits the grain. They get these rhythms going that are like goom-chack-goom-chack. Then people start playing on calabashes with this rhythm, and the rhythm is virtually identical to what we call the shuffle rhythm that you hear in a lot of old blues music, Chicago blues music, and rock music. If you go over to West Africa and you start playing what we call country blues, people will just start playing along with it and they’ll say oh, that’s our music.
SFBG: On “I Won’t Let It” you perform spoken word over the music. Is there a legacy in African music of that spoken word tradition?
MJ: Absolutely. There’s a whole caste of artists called griots. Their specialty is preserving history through story-songs, but also singing praise songs to whoever’s in power at the time. They will break into long passages of rhythmically chanted tone-poem language. That’s all there.
SFBG: You do a lot of cross-culture collaboration. Does the dynamic get tricky when you come from one of the wealthiest nations in the world?
MJ: Not really. I’ll give you an example. I was introduced to a 75-year old man who is the spiritual leader of the Holehoire religion in Timbuktu, Mali. He is what we would call a healer, or in older parlance, a witch doctor. He is like a medium, and his whole role in the community is to communicate with the jinn, their spirits. His instrument is a gourd with the skin of a river snake stretched across it, the string is horse hair. He has a whole repertoire of melodies and rhythms that he plays, the purpose of which are to call certain spirits for certain purposes, to ask for rain, or to ask for good luck, a million things.
He came over to our adobe-walled house where I had my little set-up going and we started playing music together. I was playing guitar and he was shifting back and forth between his two instruments, and he would sing a little line and I would sing something. I told him, I’m making a recording in blues, which is an African-American tradition, if this thing turns out pretty good I might put it on a CD – and I’m paying him, which he’s happy about. And I said before I do anything I want to bring it back to you because I know this is really – I don’t know how I said it to him but I’d say it to you, this is really deep waters. This is considered the pre-voodoo religion. He said sure, fine, great, I hope somebody enjoys it.
The next year I came back and I played him what I had made out of it, it’s this song on Snakeskin Violin, it’s called “Sundown Pearl” I played it for him and he started beaming and smiling and saying this is very good, this is going to be very successful. When I see him I give him something which anticipates the day when I might get some royalties from it. My friends that I’ve made there, it’s hard for them to understand that I’m not really selling a lot of CDs here but they’re very happy that there’s a revenue stream.
SFBG: You’re a vegetarian. I’m curious — I’m a vegetarian too – how is it to travel in Africa without eating meat?
MJ: They assumed at first that I must be deranged. It was absolutely inconceivable that someone could live without eating meat. Even the West African artists I perform with here in the US, it’s taken them awhile to accept it, even though they know other people here. I’m trying to think what it would be like to tell someone here. It’d be like saying I went down to the Bay and I just skipped across it to Berkeley.
SFBG: You can’t even do it with food — our society has such an individualized view of eating.
MJ: You know, I’m eating rice down there without the meat sauce, but I’m still in this communal meal zone. My friends will explain, he’s a vegetarian, and that means he doesn’t believe in eating meat, and he appears to be healthy. Something that I could not have foreseen was that I’d become a emissary for vegetarianism in West Africa.
People say, you come from a rich country, and they come from a poor country, so what is politically correct? I think when some people go to West Africa they resonate with it, they connect with it. You come to realize that what we think of as wealth and poverty is very relative to our perspective. Here you might say that we’re wealthy because we have a car, or a house, or roads that allow you to go 60 miles per hour. What we have may not necessarily translate into what they would consider to be joy, happiness, abundance, peacefulness. They’re certainly not stuck in traffic jams and trying to make mortgage payments. We might be looking at a little of a joy deficit and over there they have a happiness surplus. I know that’s simplistic, but that’s my perception.