You Tube is a fricking cabinet of wonders. In the last year, I’ve seen reruns of Nigerian sitcoms (thanks to the redoubtable Uchenna Chi at With Comb & Razor); Camarón, the Spanish feature-length biopic of Spanish flamenco singer Camarón de la Isla; more vintage footage of Puerto Rican and Cuban music than my eyes can stay focused for.
I’ve also seen this:
For folks who would rather skip ahead to the point of this post, the above video shows you a Fulani griot in traditional garb stalking an Italian stage with an acoustic guitar, while a handful of dudes in boubous kick up a loose and rollicking rhythm behind him. This was Afrissippi doing "Bafal" at last summer's Rootsway festival in Parma.
Afrissippi's goal, according to their guitarist Eric Deaton, is "preserving and promoting the West African-MS (Mississippi) continuum. Anything we do in the future will be built around that. I
wouldn't call it an 'experiment'. It's a natural fusion of musical traditions that remain powerfully
connected despite being isolated from each other for centuries." The band formed in Oxford, Miss., during the summer of 2003, when local club owner introduced Eric -- who had played bass and guitar for Hill Country blues stalwarts R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough among others -- and Guelel Kumba, a singer-songwriter from Senegal, who played folk music on an acoustic guitar. As the story goes, Guelel played Eric a song called "Nduumandii" and Eric realized it was the spitting-sonic-image of "Keep Your Hands Off That Girl" by Junior Kimbrough. The band coalesced around Guelel, Eric and 60s iconoclast/poet/MC5 manager John Sinclair, who reportedly read poems about the African diaspora at early live shows. Since then they've been refining their sound (which rarely seems to include Sinclair's poetry), mapping out the similarities between West African scales and rhythms and those Eric learned in Northern Mississippi. This made for neat tricks on their first record, Fulani Journey, where Afrissippi performs "Nduumandii/Hands Off That Girl" (Guelel singing the former while the band plays the latter) and "Ngol Jimol," a similarly seamless fusion of Guelel's Fulani melody and R.L. Burnisde's evergreen "Jumper On The Line." The band has been touring over the last year and recently finished recording its second album. Things seem to be looking up for them.
If you've read the other entries in this blog, then none of this news, really, and I don't think I've said in black-and-white why you should care about this band. Some of you may be hooked already, and cheers. I'm one of you. Someone taps me on the shoulder and says, "I have an album by folks who think American folk music and African folk music have some shit in common..." and I'm begging for the privilege of buying said album, sound-unheard, before he even shows me the cover (which will straight-up sport a Photoshop album cover of a dude with a polo shirt, a synthesizer and a smile every single time -- Photoshop, you owe me a Christmas basket and a letter of apology). Others of you are perhaps more skeptical, and cheers. I'm working on becoming one of you, though I suspect I'm still several thousand dollars worth of cheesed-out Photoshop albums away from you yet. The beauty of this blog is that I've been there, I've purchased the Tajikistanian-wedding-music-on-Casio 2-fer and, like Minesweeper, I can tell you where it's safe to walk. Afrissippi is the real deal, so walk this way.
The funny thing about the blues is that people think it's funny at all. Cuz it ain't, cuz. I suppose it hasn't dated well. The stereotype is that it is either a) music about the incidental pain of being poor and unhappy, played by smiling men with expensive guitars, or b) the domain of double-jointed white guitar wizards who discuss minutely the fingerpicking techniques of black guitar wizards that were dead before their parents were born. None of this winds up sounding very soulful, or even accessible -- and attempts to pull it in either direction usually wind up sounding like novelty songs (which is how we gets blues about car payments.) When folks first started playing this music, it must have been something like calypso was in Trinidad -- a way to get the word out about events or people. By the time it made its way to record, it was something else, something wittier, meaner, more lonely; and it changed everything about the way we do music in this country. It gave us the harmonic structure for our popular music (the I-IV-V chord changes), pentatonic scales for our melodies and improvisations, gave us a way to sing about what's on our minds in our own voices. It did these things and more besides, but the key is that it became the first major U.S. American music, and it was at least half African. With its descending legato vocal melodies, vamping polyrhythmic shuffle and pentatonic instrumental runs, you could argue that it's African all the way -- except it's not. Not all of it anyway. The closest you get is in the work of John Lee Hooker, Robert Pete Williams (some would argue), and the good people of the Mississippi Hill Country. So this is where Afrissippi steps in.
Afrissippi's argument is that the blues is implicitly an African music. Afrissippi is literally a West African griot singing his songs while a group of blues musicians play music from deepest Mississippi and there are no glitches. Afrissippi says that there was enough of Africa encoded into the DNA of the Hill Country blues style that it could work as an actual African music for African songs with West African lyrics and melodies. They're a tight band with a genuine understanding of what they're doing, and their fusion is so seamless it's hard to tell where the African music stops and the blues begin. Which, I suppose, is the point. But even this is just an academic exercise if the fusion is boring. It's not. The appeal of the band is not just that they show how two supposedly unlike things are related, it's that they affect this fusion in order to play great music. Some of their songs are delicate, wherein Guelel's guitar is essentially a kora backing up his nimble falsetto, but others are piledrivers with huge, droning riffs and stinging solos.
Below are some links to live shows posted on www.archive.org. They don't include set lists, so here are the songs know. If anyone else can fill in the gaps your help would be appreciated.
Live at Martin's, Jackson, MS - September 15, 2006
7. Ngoppe Kam Mi Yaha
Live at the Thirsty Hippo, Hattiesburg, MS - March 22, 2007
3. Ngoppe Kam Mi Yaha
3. Ngol Jimol
4. Ayo Leele
5. Face Full of Frown
6. Gonna Be Trouble Here
7. What Do You Know About Love