Corey Harris: Mississippi To Mali
Genre: Explores the connection between traditional blues and native African music
By Steve Morley
(UMCom) -- Harris, an emerging young proponent of traditional blues, was featured in a segment of Martin Scorsese’s PBS series, The Blues. On his album Mississippi To Mali, Harris attempts to follow the educational tone of the series, which inspired this collection of songs recorded in - you guessed it - Mississippi and Mali. In his brief liner notes, the singer and guitarist elaborates on the idea behind the disc: to demonstrate the universality of elemental forms of music created by people of African heritage. Harris waxes both heady and philosophical, suggesting that the music of pre-slavery-era Africans was one of the cultural ingredients - secrets of the soul, if you will - that slavery’s eventual displacement and degradation could not steal from them. This, he contends, constitutes the link between the two cultures he explores. The concept is tantalizing and loaded with socio-political portent, but Harris fails to make a strong case for his intriguing assertions.
Instead of giving us background, offering telling anecdotes from his travels or even outlining the reasoning behind his methods, he gives the listener an assignment: "To make the connection between our ancestors’ music and today’s black music, we must listen to the rhythms, the notes, the sounds of the instruments. All we must do is absorb it and appreciate it." He determines that listeners must decide on their own where the connections lie, but provides little information with which to do it. We hear him playing decades-old blues numbers, first (and again later) with American players and then with African musicians including the estimable Ali Farka Toure. Naturally, there’s a musical link - the blues repertoire itself. The African tracks (which far outweigh the American ones in number) delve into native instruments and local musical vernacular, but with the exception of the implied shuffle and blues-like guitar phrases on "Rokie," the supposed similarity between the music of these two regions remains dubious at best. Further hampering the project’s cohesiveness is a fife and drum group that appears on a pair of selections, adding welcome color but leaving listeners with no explanation of why this instrumentation is relevant in the context of this record. Similarly, the Harris-penned instrumental compositions that bookend this would-be travelogue showcase his languid slide guitar playing, yet do nothing to aid in validating Harris’ thesis.
It needs to be said, though, that the record’s failure to fully accomplish its sweeping socio-musical goal doesn’t necessarily make the music itself a downer. The African tracks capture the informal charm of a cross-cultural jam session in which the playing is casual but confident, and the spacious-sounding blues workouts - featuring only guitar, drums and harmonica - possess a burlap-bag roughness likely to please purists. Indeed, this is an acquired taste - even blues aficionados may find it hard to groove to songs that, in African style, eschew trap drums for a thin, clickety-clackety rhythmic accompaniment, especially those that hover in the seven-minute range with little variation. Blues-heads are advised to stay on well-traveled terrain. As an off-the-beaten path excursion, Mississippi To Mali has its merits. Still, it is most apt to interest those who already have a familiarity with ethnic music - for instance, someone who knows what to call those clickety-clackety things.
Steve Morley is a freelance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.