Most artists who take a spiritual journey back to their homeland usually return with a somewhat bowdlerized version of their ancestry—they may want to make the connection with their roots, but time and place and circumstance often wear the authenticity away. Then again, most artists are not Corey Harris, who has spent the last decade forging a strange yet highly rewarding alliance between all manner of indigenous American music. Corey is a scholar who, thank God, doesn’t play like one.
This Denver expat and reconstituted New Orleans resident went back to Africa several times during and after the release of Martin Scorsese’s documentary The Blues in ’03, and having done the field-recording thing with the aptly-titled Mississippi To Mali, he came back home to create what his press calls a “new sound” out of his recent experiences.
What’s startling, then, is the often Caribbean form this new sound takes,
especially rhythmically; although bookended by the easy stroll of the title
track and the modern griot fable of “The Peach,” much of this set
doesn’t have much to do with the blues in its modern American or primal
African forms. This may be Harris’ most island-tinged release yet.
The evidence abounds. “Lamb’s Bread” has a vintage Wailers righteousness, “Got To Be A Better Way” buts up against ska, and, despite its title, “Khaira” feels like a samba, if a thoughtful one. (The post-9/11 diatribe “The Bush Is Burning” cries out for a dub remix.) Even the more overtly bluesy tracks, like “More Precious Than Gold,” are awash in a “Harder They Come” era of early-’70s soul. And the gentle “The Sweetest Fruit” feels like Wyclef Jean channeling Cat Stevens.
There are exceptions, of course, like the aforementioned bookends, and the
Afro-blues hybrid “Mami Wata” (one of two tracks featuring Harris’ cultural
doppelganger, Olu Dara). And for all that, Harris’ songwriting skills
still remain the most potent weapon in his arsenal; what he says remains more
interesting than how he says it. That’s no backhanded compliment, either—Corey
remains one of America’s more vital roots artists, so deep inside himself
that he remains uncategorizable. You may not know what to call this “new
sound,” but it’s a cinch you’ll find yourself somewhere inside
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