Wednesday 30 March 2011

Music Syncretism: Blues Rock

Jimi Hendrix at the Monterey Pop Festival, June 18th 1967

John Lennon may be lionised -undeservedly, it may be argued- by many for reasons in excess of his worth as a writer and co-writer of some of the most influential songs in popular music, but may also be unfairly derided for his alleged pretensions as rock music's intellectual-in-chief.

He was in actuality a rather straight-talking iconoclast and social commentator whose famously incendiary analysis that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ, actually resonated with more than a grain of truth about the shift in Western societal values from the Christian derived sort to those of a more secular vein.

In his day, this was encapsulated by the various anti-tradition, anti-authority and anti-establishment currents and movements of the 'Counter Culture' in the fields of art, politics and of course, in music. Indeed, it is worth bearing in mind that contemporarily, the object of popular worship appears to be geared markedly, and grotesquely in the direction of what is often referred to as the 'Cult of Celebrity.'

While it is the case that Lennon may look silly now, as he did to quite a few in the 1960s, with the "Bed-ins" for Peace that were held with his avant garde artiste spouse, Yoko Ono, one set of comments he made to an interviewer on assignment for Rolling Stone magazine in the early 1970s -for me at least- speak of an inexorable truth and logic.

It went something along the lines of blues music being like a chair and a foundation. It is not a chair to be merely looked at and admired or a chair to be subjected to mechanical attempts at emulation and replication. Rather, it was as a genre, the first; the life blood and DNA of a host of traditions in music including what came to be known as Rock N' Roll.

Of course, it can be persuasively argued that the blues, while been the distinctive forebear of jazz, rock and their multifarious variants, is itself a branch of a tradition which traces its origins to the Savannah regions of the western part of the African continent.

In the 1960s, a young Malian musician by the name of Ali Farka Toure was flabbergasted to discover certain patterns of traits in the inflections of African-descended American musicians ranging from the blues guitarist John Lee Hooker to the jazz organist Jimmy Smith, that were pretty much congruent to the music bequeathed to him by his ancestors. Listening to the opening strains of Djen Magni, a 1980s-era tune by Malian singer, Sali Sidibe, one is struck by the similarities with the inaugural manipulations of a guitar by a delta blues maestro.

Which ever progenitor we choose, be it Mande or Mississippian, the 'chair' has blossomed and branched. The original chair, Lennon opined is not necessarily the 'best' but provides the framework and inspiration for future development by artists of differing geographic and ethnic origins who shape and enrich the genre by breathing it with life anew.

Each compelling personality or each wave brings a fresh perspective to the 'original' while remaining aesthetically true to it. It means that the African-American blues practitioner does not sound precisely the same as his West African counterpart because of the changes wrought by transplantation to the Western hemisphere including the loss of the indigenous languages of his forebears as well as the European mould of musical instruments at his disposal.

It means that while English musicians who began to play the blues did not sound like the African-American singers and musicians who inspired them, they added a dimension to it, and ironically, sold the genre back to large swathes of the white American population who constricted by the segregation of the races, remained ignorant of the vitality of this brand of music.

Music thrives on the cross pollination of ideas. Where Frederick Delius delved into the rich vein of harmonic and melodic patterns in African-American music to give fresh stimulus to European 'classical' music, English groups like the Rolling Stones, whose band name is derived from a song by Muddy Waters, started off by trying to imitate the African-American sound before eventually developing a style, or styles which fittingly reflected their own personal and cultural contexts.

Muddy Waters himself reflected the change of his environment in his music. From the folksy, acoustic compositions inspired by their rural surroundings, black musicians who migrated from the southern United States to the industrial and urbanised north, plugged in their guitars and took the genre to another level.

If that harder, more voluminous sound was poorly received by ostensibly non-racist 'liberal' connoisseurs who could only stomach the blues as anything other than a vehicle only to be purveyed in an acoustic format by barefooted, straw-hatted rustic types, then tough.

For me, blues rock remains one of the most exciting forms of musical expression to emanate, to borrow Lennon’s phrase, from the 'original' chair.

From the guitar playing genius of Jimi Hendrix to the brilliantly evocative stylisation's of the Jagger-Richards partnership at the heart of the Rolling Stones, the extensions made to the possibilities of expression laid down by pioneers such as Robert Johnson, Son House, Muddy Waters and The Howlin' Wolf but to name a few, were explored and multiplied in the 1960s; this the tumultuous era of protests, assassinations and hallucinogenic explorations.

And speaking of cross pollination. The ways in which music expression through its travels fertilizes and invigorates never ceases to amaze to the extent that certain features of the playing of Ali Farka Toure perhaps contain the influence of John Lee Hooker much in the manner that Toure has influenced Americans such as Ry Cooder. Or the way in which Nigerian bands like BLO were influenced by the psychedelic sounds of Western rock.

Many West African guitarists of the late 1960s and the early to middle 70s appeared to be particularly influenced by both Carlos Santana and Hendrix. What could be a better exemplar of syncretisation; the ‘building of the chair’, than the British rock trio Cream’s extemporisation on Robert Johnson’s Crossroads, itself a spookily recited classic in the tradition of the Delta Blues which was based on the Yoruban folklore of Eshu Elegbara, the trickster in Yoruba mythology and intermediary between humans and the gods; known in the Afro-Diasporean world as Papa Legba, to whom Johnson reputedly ‘sold his soul’ in consideration for the granting of the gift of genius.

The blues in its raw, 12-bar model is often derided and even parodied for its supposed cliché-ridden format. It has been largely disavowed and even disowned by its creators –the African-American community- many of who consider it an uncomfortable reminder of the legacy of bondage; of an outlaw black male who is shiftless and pitiable singing songs inspired by ‘the devil’.

That interpretation, whatever its accuracies or its distortions, had no place during the era of the struggle for their civil rights when the optimism and solidarity embodied by gospel-influenced soul music became the popular means of musical expression for black musicians.

I prefer a more positive assessment. Just as it would be wrong to reduce the importance of jazz by narrowly referencing it to its brothel origins or to depict gospel as having been a more accurate reminder of the condition and circumstance of slavery, it is largely unhelpful to couch the blues as an unworthy genre and infinitely more rewarding to view it as it should: a constantly evolving genre that is at the root of various styles that came to be the popular music of the Western world; one which is rich in its capacity for reinvention and regeneration.

That, to sort of paraphrase B.B. King, is why I love the blues.

(c) Adeyinka Makinde (2009)

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