Diddley Bows and Djembes and Ngonis—Oh My!”
The blues got its start in Africa centuries ago, when polyrhythmic percussion and plainsong chants were the norm. The people who were taken to the Americas as slaves brought their musical heritage with them. Along with the evolution of the guitar, these influences led to the official ‘discovery’ of the genre at a train station in Tutweiller, Mississippi, just over 100 years ago.
Of course, the blues has evolved since W.C. Handy first heard it there. But certain sub-genres stick closely to their African roots. “Trance blues”, also known as North Mississippi Hill Country blues, is one such style. The backbone of this sound is the repeated use of one particular chordal run—anywhere from one to three chords in progression. Combine that with a driving beat (not necessarily polyrhythmic), and—presto!—you have blues music that you can dance to, groove to, and get lost in.
The most notable North Mississippians to practice this art form have appeared on the Fat Possum label. The late Junior Kimbrough was the master: his open-tuned drone somehow sucked you into a vortex, never to return from its confines until the song (ruefully) ended. Junior would throw a slow solo into the mix, but that driving beat kept things going, and Kimbrough would purposefully repeat the chordal run until you were hypnotized. When Junior did his solo thing, your brain kept the rhythmic movement without actually hearing it. T-Model Ford and R.L. Burnside both do the same thing—with amplifiers maxed and juiced—while Robert Belfour plied his trade acoustically, and rarely with drums. (Ironically, Kimbrough was the only one of these practitioners to employ a bass player in his work, giving the music that extra muscular push.) Early on, it was folks like Ranie Burnette and Mississippi Fred McDowell (a nearby neighbor and friend of both Kimbrough and Burnside) who were able to do these things, mostly with acoustic guitars. Even the late Othar Turner, one of the two most noted cane fife players from the region, managed (with his drum corps) to find that groove time and time again. And—not to miss anybody—current artists like the North Mississippi Allstars, Richard Johnston, and Mark Lemhouse, all carry the trance torch in their work.
A thousand or so miles away in Colorado, of all places, a bluesman who has worked for over 35 years was a fan of the trance style. Pueblo’s Dan Treanor is probably a name unfamiliar to those outside the Colorado Blues Society, but within that circle, he is second only to Otis Taylor in popularity. Treanor, who learned to blow a mean harp while serving in Vietnam in the late ‘60s, has played with artists including Son Seals and Louisiana Red.
Thanks to a Denver booking agent, Treanor was hooked up with West Coast soul singer Frankie Lee. NorthernBlues founder and president Fred Litwin was wowed—on first listen—by the twosome’s demo tape, and they were fittingly signed at the 2004 Handy Awards in Memphis. The result is African Wind, an album of musical adventure combined with trance blues.
Lee may not be a household name among soul or R&B singers, but he does have a solid line of credit. Raised on gospel, Lee worked his way into the Ike & Tina Turner Revue and then cut some sides for Duke Records in the early 60’s. Now, one would have a legitimate right to wonder how a soul singer—one compared to Sam Cooke and Otis Redding—would be able to fit his talents into the repetitive mantra of trance blues. True, he has worked with Albert Collins, and employed Robert Cray, Robben Ford and Bobby Murray in his own bands. So even with his soul leanings, he was never far from the blues. But the real answer is that in these recordings Lee’s voice is used as just another instrument—sort of like Kimbrough’s solos. This is not to say that Lee is inhibited during the course of the 15 songs: his voice rings out solid and soulful. But it blends seamlessly with all the instrumentation going on around it.
Treanor plays African instruments—and even makes them, using animal skins imported from Africa. Here he has taken a cornucopia of sounds and managed to incorporate them into the trance style. The opening track, “Missing”, features a simple harmonica, adding a layer of hypnotic sound to the polyrhythmic beat. Lee’s vocals break up the building tension without jarring the groove. The tune also features a Khalam, a six-string African guitar. Throw in a Jethro Tull-like flute solo, and it’s a mix that’s not supposed to work on paper. Thing is: this isn’t paper you’re listening to.
“Mean Woman Blues” is one of the straightest songs on the disc. Its beat brings to mind comparisons with “Willie and the Hand Jive”. “Love a Woman’s Soul” features heavy tribal pounding and the prominence of flute. (Gary Flori, who plays just about all the percussion on the album, also recorded and mixed the disc.) “Tell Me Mama” is an acoustic blues shuffle, countered—in a nice contrast—by Lee’s soulful, emotive voice.
The album develops stylistically. The title song features both the Djembe (African hand drum) and Kalimba (African thumb piano). Again, though, your attention is not necessarily held by the instruments being used, but by the repetitive nature of the song. “The Griot Man” features the Ngoni, a four- or seven-stringed African banjo. It suggests similarities to a Hawaiian slide guitar—perfect for a song in the AAB structure. “Black Hanna” sounds like a Dick Dale outtake, except that Dale never tried playing a surf song with a Diddley Bow. “Cane Flute Soul” tries to emulate the sounds of Othar Turner, or friendly rival Napoleon Strickland, but the drums don’t have that down-bottom feel. “True Love” features a full-on electric guitar throughout, which is quite a change of pace from all else that’s going on.
African Wind is—to coin an oxymoron—eclectically primitive. Treanor uses various instruments for a single purpose: to create a driving sound that keeps going until it’s time for the next sonic landscape. Frankie Lee’s vocals compliment the material, giving some yang to its relentless yin. The sounds are African in their genesis but brought into the contemporary Mississippi style. Corey Harris’ Mississippi to Mali has the same type of mojo, except that it uses fewer tools to ply its trade. What Dan Treanor has done classes him as a “today” player in the blues field. It’s not exactly the old style as made famous throughout the last century, but the blues will never return to that point, the awesome Taylor and Fat Possum crew notwithstanding. Treanor straddles the fine line between old and modern blues; he walks it, talks it, and plays it with ease. African Wind is a trip in a time machine to the origins of the blues, with a fast forward to today. A thrilling and entertaining ride.