An artist who has toiled away making "blues revivalist" records, Corey Harris now presents Mississippi to Mali, his latest thesis that the blues actually started in Africa, not somewhere deep in the South. The album is the direct result from Harris' involvement in Martin Scorcese's Blues docu-series (that's him escorting the viewer from rural Mississippi to Africa in the seminal chapter "Feel Like Going Home"). Harris took the late, great Alan Lomax's important blueprint of field recording and applied it to Ry Cooder's worldly practice of collaboration. In the process, he created an historical concept record destined to claim its rightful place as an important milestone in recorded history.
Track to track, Harris fleshes out the African blues-root theory. It's a concept that has been bandied about by musicologists and learned music scholars the world over. Problem always was it was difficult to prove to the public. It's safe to say that there never existed a tangible-enough explanation for Africa as the root of blues. Even Lomax believed that the blues sprang from the Mississippi Delta. So Harris took it upon himself to rectify that gaping hole by driving the first nail in the bridge. And it makes Mississippi to Mali an incredibly important--and convincing--document that has been missing for far too long.
Book-ended by two beautiful Harris solo pieces (the original, finger-picked instrumental "Coahoma" and the slide-heavy "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground"), the album's meat gives the listener an educational duality unlike any other modern album I've heard, blues or otherwise. This is not a compilation. This is live, field-recorded blues from up on the porch and under the trees.
By far and away this is the most interesting record I've had the pleasure of plundering in a while. And as a reviewer, I tried like hell to come up with a singular tune, or group of tunes, that could somehow be fleshed out for purposes of describing the album's essence. Looking at the track listing, and then hearing the song played, engrossed me further into euphoric confusion. The problem I had was a good one--one song is hardly the point of all this. Harris' song choices and tracking masterfully blur the lines between what's African and what's American. Which is exactly the point of the record: every song becomes another fact that backs up this hypothesis.
The songs are fresh and spontaneous without feeling forced. Harris' haunting and real-blues moan is a constant. Others chip in on vocals, but the guest shots are notable for the adept musicianship. Master African-blues guitarist Ali Farka Toure plays the njarka (a one-stringed violin) on his original song named after the instrument (and on other tunes as well). Percussionist Souleyman Kane clomps the West African calabash with a necessary looseness to flesh it out. Yet perhaps the biggest benefit of the record is hearing some of the songs filled out by a chorus of birds ("Tamalah") and insects (the traditional "Rokie"), proof positive that music is the universal language.
The album is dedicated to the late Otha Turner, who died just a week before his turn on the album came up. Taking his place, however, is his young granddaughter, Sharde Thomas. Just 12 years old at the time of the recording, she led her grampa's Rising Star Fife and Drum Band through a raucous and fun rendition of "Back Atcha." The young voice sounds it, and a missed vocal cue confirms it, but the confidence and thrust of this little voice is a Grammy-worthy performance that will become notable through the years. Bobby Rush dedicates his own easy-wheezy harmonica through Harris' shout-out "Mr. Turner."
Mississippi to Mali is an impressive effort from Harris that deserves serious attention. Unfortunately, he just barely hit the tail end of the contrived "Year of the Blues," missing out on the same wave that helped O Brother, Where Art Thou? succeed. This album isn't just for people who dig old-time blues and African music. But I'm biased--I got into vintage blues a long time ago, and I discovered African music a few years ago. So, for me, it's only natural to keep on digging it--and to want other people to dig it along with me. If this CD came out a year ago it would have soared. So for now, Mississippi to Mali demands your attention and comes highly recommended.
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