Friday, December 28, 2007

North Mississippi, Part Three: Afrissippi

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 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
1. ?
2. Bambangel
3. ?
4. Dono
5. Bafal
6. Nduumandii
7. Ngoppe Kam Mi Yaha

Live at the Thirsty Hippo, Hattiesburg, MS - March 22, 2007
[Set 1]
1. ?
2. Bafal
3. Ngoppe Kam Mi Yaha
4. Dono
5. ?
6. Njulli

[Set 2]
1. ?
2. Nduumandii
3. Ngol Jimol
4. Ayo Leele
5. Face Full of Frown
6. Gonna Be Trouble Here
7. What Do You Know About Love


Comb & Razor said...

my oh my do i love these grungy Mississippi blues!

as we discussed before, lately i've been vacillating a bit on my views regarding the degree of African content in the blues, but Afrissippi definitely make a strong case for it being a lot.

i continue to listen, and to learn... hopefully i'll make up my mind soon enough!

happy new year, by the way!

"Big Al" Maghreb said...

Happy New Year to you, too! I've been thinking a lot about your comments regarding Cuba, too, and how you can hear Africa so clearly in Cuban music. I think there's got to be some way to determine what's Cuban in the music and what's African, and that way you could measure Africa's influence on Cuba, but also measure how influential Cuban music has been on African music. Like, does Cuban music sound so African because so many African groups sound so Cuban? Know what I mean?

Anyway, glad you liked the blues stuff! Switching gears in the next one though. Happy 2008.

Comb & Razor said...

if i didn't mention it before (and i probably didn't... i had a long-ass reply to our last convo that i didn't post), you should definitely check out Ned Sublette's Cuba and Its Music.

lotta great information in there... no definitive answers, of course. but shoot, where can those be found?

"Big Al" Maghreb said...

I will run and not walk to amazon and buy that book. Your timing is perfect! I was actually on amazon and stopped looking for books on Latin music long enough to check my blog and there's your recommendation, so... awesome. I was also looking at The Latin Beat by Ed Morales, which sounds awfully good. The opening pages are about Cuba and sort of boil down this whole discussion in a concise way -- though as you say there's no way to get a definitive thumbs-up or -down re: the purported African-ness of music outside of Africa.

The blues is a funny one though. You know, rhythmically, it's not as complex as son or merengue or even calypso, but it's melodies are more African. So, it's like in the Caribbean, there might be African influenced rhythms, but European or North American-influenced melodies (Spanish, English, Irish, French). But in the blues, it's the other way around -- pretty basic rhythms (but still with a light African influence in the 2-on-3 polyrhythmic shuffle) but the melodies sound African -- which is kinda how Afrissippi can do what they do. Anyway, off to buy that book. And throw that post up if you feel good about it. These discussions are great!

Comb & Razor said...

can't remember if i've ever looked at The Latin Beat... i know i've seen it on the shelves a lot. this is definitely a good time for me to read it now, though!

i think you have a good point about blues melody as a possible African retention. a lot of people are quick to write off African retention in American music altogether because it's a known fact that American slaves were not allowed drums.

but of course that's a real simplification of what "African music" means... conventional wisdom says that African music is all about drums and rhythm, but conventional wisdom overlooks the abundance of stringed instruments in West African and the highly medlodic music played on them.

Spinning said...

OK, go a bit further south and you get to Brazil - where there are African-derived musics galore, with no blues scales or blues-like scales. (With the exception of a few remote parts of northeastern Brazil, where there are some folks who flat some telling notes - but I need to be getting info. directly from a Portuguese-language source to be able to tell you more about that, and it could take a while...)

There is very little available on Brazilian music in English, which makes it sort of the odd man out in a lot of these discussions. But you can check out Bruce McGowan & Ricardo Pessanha's The Brazilian Sound for starters. it's an amazing book. The more I hear of Brazilian music, the more amazed I am at how they were able to create such a (nearly) comprehensive, yet highly readable, book. (Their publisher needs to let them work on an updated edition, though...)

Just my .02-worth...

"Big Al" Maghreb said...

Uchenna, I totally agree with you that Africa's melodic side doesn't get much play. Kinda going back to our earlier discussions about drums -- every culture's got them, so maybe it's easier to hear how distinctly (many) Africans play them. But there are so many African instruments, and I think a lot of them are so alien to most of the West, that western folks have a hard time understanding what Africans are playing on them. They just don't have the context, you know? By the way, that Ned Sublette book is on its way to my mailbox. Thanks for the tip! I'm pumped. I got Latin Beat, too, so I'll let you know how that goes.

"Big Al" Maghreb said...

And thanks for recommending The Brazilian Sound, Spinning! Back to Amazon I go. You're right it is hard to find info about Afro-Brazilian music in English, and I don't speak Portuguese! For that matter it's been hard (at least for me) to find legit Afro-Brazilian roots music. I've got a Batucada & Capoeira comp from Soul Jazz, and there's a pretty hot Candomble recording on, but other than that I can't seem to find any pre-choro stuff. There seems to be an infinite variety of African-derived musics there, but damn if I can find the albums anywhere. Any tips? That choro jazz tune you had up yesterday was pretty sweet, by the way.

Spinning said...

"Pre-choro" is literally before the era of recorded music, actually - you might want to look at the Acari Records site for some info (, or at least for some of their music samples. The owners have been working hard on getting a lot of early choros published and recorded, though the latter are definitely modern attempts at playing the music as it might have sounded in the late 19th c. (Yep, it predates jazz...)

As for separating "Afro-Brazilian" music from the totality of Brazilian music - they don't see it through the same lens as we do in the US. it's a complex subject... and not one I can speak about with any real authority. However (big "however"), I don't think I'd want to be drawing too many lines, as there are so many regional and local styles, and although many have deep African roots, people of all colors play them, and....

Well, someone could write a book or two about this. ;)

And thanks for the comment on the Rodrigo Lessa track - which is actually a meetup between him and musicians from Cape Verde and Angola. he says that it took him 10 years to pull the album (and research) together!

"Big Al" Maghreb said...

Spinning, I've got it about the pre-choro era being pre-recorded, but the traditions that existed then presumably existed after the advent of recording even if they were gone by mid-century, right? That's the stuff I want to hear, but it seems hard to lay hands on. Also hear you on how Brazilians see their music and that the vicissitudes of race in Brazil (and the rest of South America) work differently than in North America. And someone did actually write a book about samba that addresses a lot of this stuff: Hello, Hello Brazil by Bryan McCann tries to work out samba's role in the creation of Brazil's national identity and focuses on all those paradoxes it faces regarding race. And I also agree that drawing lines is dangerous and, luckily, totally impossible! Especially where Brazil is concerned but all over the world, I guess, including the Middle East (props again for the Saudi Aramco link), which I want to get into before too much longer.

I once heard it said that North America stands alone in the African diaspora because African and European elements are more separate here than anywhere else. Do you think that's true?

Spinning said...

Al, I'll refer you to this site, which has a great choro page:

People in Brazil never had de facto segregation, or Jim Crow. A lot of the music is a real melding of both European and African influences - choro especially. I think that's probably one of the reasons that so many Brazilians see it as essential to any understanding of Brazilian music. The original choro musicians were amateurs who played for parties in Rio - and they were of all colors and backgrounds. I think the chapter in McGowan & Pessanha's book is one of the best intros. you could find, but the site I just linked to will (perhaps) take you further, in some respects.


"Big Al" Maghreb said...

Thanks, Spinning! I'll check it and Acari records out.

Spinning said...

Hey - my pleasure!


Comb & Razor said...

i picked up The Latin Beat last week, too... i'm going to start reading it tomorrow!

ummm... books on Brazilian music? well, there's The Brazilian Sound, of course, which is pretty good. and then there's Ruy Castro's Bossa Nova...

i know i've read or flipped through a couple other decent ones, but i've just got to remember...

"Big Al" Maghreb said...

Man, I like that Ruy Castro book. It makes for a surprisingly good story -- kinda makes you wish more folks would give you the history of a music as a narrative rather than a survey.

That's awesome you got Latin Beat! Let me know how it goes! It looked like a winner.

J.C. McGowan said...

Greetings all,
I am the co-author of "The Brazilian Sound" and was very happy to see our book mentioned in the blog comments. The need for a revised edition was mentioned and, well, here it is: a third edition was published on Dec. 28, 2008 by Temple University Press. You can find it on Amazon or at our website: We also have a supplementary blog about Brazilian music at blogspot.