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RORY BLOCK INTERVIEW (written for Acoustic Guitar in 1995)

When Rory Block starts to play, it is as if she had just been turned loose. She stomps her black high-heeled boots, twists her head, and plays as if she might tear the strings off her guitar, while her voice soars, groans and wails. Offstage, sitting in a small room with an interviewer, she seems almost a different person, constrained and out of her element. She sits as if she were trapped, tensely holding herself in check. She talks very fast, and looks as if she wants to be moving around and can only with difficulty keep still.

"I've always been a person with tremendous energy," Block says. "I wake up at six in the morning and I'm leaping out of bed. I don't need coffee and that sort of thing; I'm not the type of metabolism that drags slowly along and can't do anything for the first hour and doesn't want to talk to anyone. I'm a high energy person, and my guitar playing is high energy."

Indeed, Block plays with a power matched by few contemporary acoustic players. At her best, she conjures up the memory of Son House, the legendary Mississippi Delta bluesman who was one of her earliest and strongest influences. Like House, she plays with her whole body, her right arm swinging in a wild arc as she snaps and flails the strings with an astonishing mix of passion and precision.

"I don't have any conscious awareness that I do what I do because of watching [House]," Block says. "But sometimes I see the connection myself and I realize wow, he rolled his head back and rolled his eyes and did some similar things. So maybe I picked it up from him without realizing it. Or maybe, I kind of think it's my nature that makes me do that. It's the way I am. The older players I knew provided some of the inspiration, but I was already deeply inspired. I would probably have been similar to what I am today if I had never met them."

Block was introduced to country blues in her early teens. Her father, Alan Block, is a sandal maker and leather craftsman who plays old-time country fiddle, and his shop on West Fourth Street in Greenwich Village was the unofficial headquarters of the old-time string band revival. His daughter grew up on the music of Roscoe Holcomb, Charley Poole, and Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers, and that led her to blues. When the banjo players and fiddlers jammed in Washington Square Park, the blues revival fingerpickers were playing on the other side of the fountain. Block fell in love with the hard Delta sound and set out to make it her own. When Stefan Grossman made his "How to Play Blues Guitar" album, the beginning of an empire of instructional materials, a sixteen-year-old Aurora Block demonstrated Willie Brown's driving "Future Blues."

Greenwich Village in the early 1960s was a good time and place to get into traditional blues. The revival was in full swing, and Block was at the heart of it, hanging out with legendary musicians like House, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, and the Reverend Gary Davis. Block treasures her memories of the older players, but feels that they were less important to her as musical models than as connecting links to another world. "Certainly when I played for [Son House] and then he talked to me about my playing, that's a useful experience musically," she says. "But it was more a just plain spiritual experience, being with this person who I felt came from another time zone. I felt almost like I was looking back a hundred years. It was very strange. Especially with Son House; a little bit with Mississippi John Hurt or Skip James. Not so much with Reverend Gary Davis, 'cause he had a very contemporary feeling to him, he belonged in the 1960s and was happy in that decade. But with Son House you felt like for him time was frozen quite a long time ago. Even the way he looked, like this handsome gentleman from another era."

For Block, the feeling of entering another world has remained an inescapable part of what draws her to blues. "I feel a really powerful connection to it and when I'm playing I feel transported," she says. "I don't know what it is. I'm not saying it's some sort of mystical, new age thing, and I'm not saying that it gives me the right to sing it more than someone else. I has nothing to do with that. I was just very interested in that period of time, and when I first heard the music it sort of took me back. I immersed myself in that feeling and when I play the music I feel like I'm there--wherever 'there' is. It's not a conscious thing; I don't sit down and meditate and say, 'Dear Lord, please bring me back to the 1930's tonight when I'm playing.' I just play, and I sort of go into a space that makes me feel totally inspired and totally connected to that time."

Though she places such emphasis on time and place, Block says her first, visceral attraction was to the music itself, specifically the sound of the great Delta guitarists. While Grossman and other white revivalists were drawn to the intricate picking of Davis and the Eastern ragtime players, she devoted herself entirely to the circle of musicians around Charlie Patton and his associates. "It was the intensity of it, the beauty of it, the fascination of it--the rhythms were incredible," she remembers. "I was more fascinated by those eccentric rhythms than by the tried and true sound, the one two, one two--not that that doesn't take tremendous skill; I mean Rev. Gary Davis' guitar style is so great, like Blind Blake. But their rhythms were more understandable and predictable, where Robert Johnson was not at all predictable. Tommy Johnson, Charlie Patton, the rhythms were eccentric. Willie Brown. I didn't say to myself, 'This is eccentric so I'm gonna do this.' I just thought 'This is tremendous.'"

Because of its idiosyncrasies, the work of the great Delta players is the hardest sound in the blues field to emulate. Songs will subtly shift emphasis from verse to verse, sometimes from line to line. The pieces are so quirky and personal that one is faced with a dilemma: if one copies them exactly one ends up with a pale shadow of the original version, while if one doesn't it is easy to lose the very aspects that made the original great. On her new album, "When a Woman Gets the Blues," the first all-blues record she has made in over a decade, Block has come up with an ideal compromise. Having immersed herself in the style for most of her life, she can take the original songs as jumping-off places, adding new guitar parts and completely changing the flavor of the vocal lines while staying close to the spirit of the originals.

Some of the most impressive songs are those in which she departs the furthest from her models. Kansas Joe McCoy's "Joliet Bound," the album's standout track, is given a quite different flavor than on the original record. McCoy was a versatile, jazz-influenced artist, far from the rough plantation sound that is Block's usual music of choice. In her reading, she adds a harder-edged vocal and some excellent double-tracked guitar, meeting McCoy halfway in a compromise between her usual pedal-to-the-metal drive and his more laid-back approach. The result is a relaxed, flowing reading that shows a taste and subtlety that is in welcome contrast to her tougher performances. On Skip James's "Devil Got My Woman," she stays close to James on guitar while singing with a passion and style that is entirely her own, and she completely transforms his version of the spiritual "Be Ready When He Comes," performing it in an a cappella gospel trio with her son Jordan and her own soaring, over-dubbed obbligato.

While she plays around with many of the songs, in some cases Block chose to stay close to the original versions. "On a lot of those songs, I found myself going, 'Hm, that's interesting but let me try a little bit of this spice and this herb and see what I come up with,'" she says. "Whereas with the Son House song, ["Preaching Blues,"] I felt like I really wanted to play it the way he did, grasp it not exactly note for note but with the attitude that he was playing with. And I am happier about that tune than anything else on the album. Then the Robert Johnson tune, ["Hellhound on my Trail,"] that was for a movie soundtrack and they wanted it to be a duplicate of Robert Johnson's guitar playing, so I played that with every attempt to make it be, stanza by stanza, as close as possible to what I could tell he was doing."

Block's reading of "Hellhound," while it cannot match the shear emotional power of Johnson's original, is a magnificent approximation of his playing. Though she is justifiably proud of this, Block hastens to add that there are clear differences. "I knew it was never gonna be a duplicate," she says firmly. "Nobody's ever gonna get Robert Johnson right. I would like to say that really clearly. We're trying, but nobody's ever gonna get it, because nobody's Robert Johnson. It's good to try, but it irritates me when people try to come on like they're the next Robert Johnson, and people try to do that a lot. They try to leap on the bandwagon. There's some great players out there--some of the best ones are not people that anyone has ever heard of--and some people are deeply tuned into it and play it with the right attitude, but by and large Robert Johnson's playing has been over-simplified, 'cause it's so complex it's nearly impossible to grasp."

That last statement needs a little clarification, because the recent rage of Johnsonophilia has often mis-stated his talents as a guitarist. Johnson was not a devastating technician like Lonnie Johnson, Blind Blake, or Casey Bill Weldon. What is amazing about his playing is less that any one of his riffs is particularly difficult than the way the pieces fit together. Johnson was a master in every aspect of his playing, but the totality is still far greater than the sum of its parts, and the thing that makes his music exceptional cannot be picked up just by learning his licks.

"The word eccentric keeps coming back to mind," Block says. "But it shouldn't be misunderstood; it doesn't mean that it's crazy or sort of off and goofy. It means that it follows its own spontaneous pattern. There's a method to it, but it's not constrained, it's very wild. And because of that wildness it's hard to pin it down and understand it. Still, there are certain keys [not musical keys, but the sort that unlock doors]. If you learn those keys then you can begin to try to hope that in your lifetime you'll be able to put them together with a certain amount of spontaneity and creativity and have a meaningful interpretation of Robert Johnson with a little bit of yourself rolled into it."

Johnson is the most famous of the Delta blues artists, and his songs are in the repertoire of virtually every contemporary acoustic blues player. Block's new album, however, also boasts several songs by players who are known only to the most devoted country blues fans. Mattie Delaney, Hattie Hart and Louise Johnson are among the few women from the Delta who recorded in the 1930s, and their work has until now been virtually ignored by revival players.

"When I first started hearing this music, I hardly heard any women artists," Block says. "At that time they didn't have Delta Women compilations and all that stuff. In the beginning, I didn't make a judgment to do songs that had been recorded by men, I just did the music that I heard. This time it was a conscious decision, because I felt that now that there are more releases available that are women's music I need to make the effort to listen to them and pick out material."

Asked if she hears a difference in approach between the women and men who sang and played Delta blues, Block is at first nonplused. She hems and haws, finally giving her answer with a half-joking request that it be made clear she gave it under duress. "Almost always in the country blues players that I have heard, the men are more aggressive guitar players," she says. "The reason I don't like to say that is because it promotes this image that women play folky guitar, and I'm out here to say that they don't. Bonnie Raitt's out here to say that they don't, Debbie Davies, and a lot of other women players. But there was this cultural thing that was like, women have to be sort of delicate about everything that they do."

Block's work, from her blues to her original material to the over-produced pop music of her first LPs, could never be described as delicate, and she says she has been on the receiving end of some rather odd responses to her musical power and drive. She talks about a man jumping up out of the audience at a Berkeley coffee house in the mid 1960s and screaming "She plays like a man!" That assessment, often meant as a compliment, has frequently been aimed at women guitarists; Memphis Minnie even had it as her slogan. Block, however, says that she found it puzzling. "I felt like, 'What is he talking about?' she says. "I had no reference point at the time. But then people would see me and go 'What kind of music do you play?' And I'd go 'I play blues,' and they'd go 'Oh, we thought you would play like...' and they'd name some folk singer that played soft arpeggios and sang in a wobbly voice. So that's their stereotype. It's true that there are women who do fit that stereotype, and that's fine. But there are women who don't fit it."

Block says that some male listeners have found her power not only startling but threatening. She tells of an Australian tour she did with John Hammond, another guitarist noted for his aggressive attack. "People were mortified by my playing," she says. "They couldn't take it. They never said one word about John's playing being too aggressive, but they said mine was too aggressive. They said 'Never heard a bird do that before.' Now, this is a while ago and it wasn't everybody, but there were some people who seemed a little bit shocked."

Block suggests that such cultural stereotypes may have contributed to the generally more "routine" guitar playing of the women blues singers. When it came to lyrics, though, she says the women were stronger than the men. "I find that the women blues singers are not afraid of subject matter," she says. "They're out there singing bawdy songs, grabbing life by the jugular vein and singing about it. Whereas male blues is fantastic and brilliant, women get in and they sing really intense songs, sexy songs. I've heard it all my life. Most of the raunchy, gritty songs have been by women singers. I don't know what that means except that maybe they felt more able to deal with human...with the animal side of humanness, the earthy side, and deal with it directly. Whereas the men were singing about their travels and their hard breaks, women were getting down to it. And I like that, I think that's great."

Another thing Block thinks is great is the young women who are now entering the blues field. More and more often, women come up to her at concerts to say that she inspired them to sing and play blues. "When I hear that, it's such an honor," she says. "I go like, 'wow, how did this happen?' You know, I feel like if I die tomorrow, it's OK. These people come up and say 'I want to be like you,' and I'm like, that's just so sweet."

It should be added that Block is equally enthusiastic about the rise of blues performers in general, regardless of gender. "When I started out in the music business, it was hard just being a blues player," she says. "The worst thing I had to deal with was the attitude that this was totally noncommercial music. The attitude in the music biz was, I was very good at it but so what. 'Why are you doing this?' That was all I ever heard. So it wasn't so much being female, although that had it's drawbacks, most of which have since disappeared."

Indeed, on that front Block is cheerfully optimistic. "I don't mean to say that sexism is all gone," she says. "But it really is a better day and time than it was when I started out. I'm finding that it's a good day to be a woman, it's a good day to be a man." Of course, she is the first to grant that her own experience is to some extent framed by the incredible boom in her professional career. Aside from the personal and artistic satisfaction this has given her, it has permitted her to hire assistants to act as her front people, insulating her from many of the hassles of the music business.

"I feel blessed," she says, absolutely seriously. "I'm very grateful. Because I went through some things.... I don't talk about my life that much because that's not the point. People say 'You're singing the blues; did you have a hard life?' And that's not the issue, the issue is do you play it with feeling. But in truth for most of my life I was stone broke and struggling and sometimes starving. There was a time in my life when I was pregnant, living alone, and had no food and no family and didn't know where to go. That was when I was very young.

"Here I am raving on, but there was this long long period of my life when I was even touring and really getting no respect, as Rodney Dangerfield would say. Then something happened. I don't know when, exactly, but all of a sudden I go 'Oh my God, something is wonderful; I'm being blessed.' And I think it started happening through the audience, which is really what it's all about. There are the outward signs: filling houses, selling a lot of records, standing ovations. These all are happening frequently, and I'm grateful; I never take it for granted. But there is also this deeply intense personal response and interaction with people who come up and talk to me. And it isn't all men coming up because they want to see a woman play guitar because they think it's sexy, or all women because they relate because I'm a woman. It's both, and that's wonderful."

Having found this success after so many years in the wilderness, it seems logical to ask whether, like the "rediscovered" blues performers who were her early models, Block expects to still be performing in her seventies or eighties. Her response is surprisingly negative. Not only does she not expect to be out there in another thirty years, she says, she recently contemplated retirement. She had "a bad health episode" last year, and says she suddenly got to thinking "Wait a minute. There's life and then there's life. Where are my priorities?" Fortunately for her fans, material concerns make her retirement unlikely in the immediate future. "Realistically, I don't see it coming soon, because I haven't saved any money. I've made myself a beautiful surroundings in upstate New York, I've fixed up my old house, put in gardens and landscaping and trees so that I don't see the road, and I have my beautiful bus and creature comforts that make me feel a lot of joy. But sometimes I wish I could take some time off."

As to what she would have done if she had retired, Block's response recalls a dichotomy that drove many of the great blues artists, from Gary Davis and Son House to Little Richard. "I wanted to go into the church," she says. "I was so sick, and I thought, 'Fuck this, I'm gonna be a minister.' I know that doesn't sound very pious, but I actually put on the robe and went into the church. But all my friends said, 'You don't understand. You already have a bully pulpit. You're already preaching to people, reaching people who don't go to church. You're already ministering, and you should keep doing that. And I realized they were right. I realized that's where my mission lies and there's more of it to come."

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VISHWA MOHAN BHATT PROFILE (written for Acoustic Guitar in 1994)

The stage is bare, except for a cloth-covered set of tabla, the traditional Indian drums. From the right-hand door, Vishwa Mohan Bhatt enters, guitar in hand. He bows, acknowledging the applause, and sits crosslegged at center stage, then opens a small bag and takes out two metal finger picks and a plastic thumb pick, a. steel rod, and a little pot of oil. Meanwhile accompanist Sukhwinder Singh Namdhari removes the cover from his tabla and begins to tune the drumhead, tapping the wooden wedges with a hammer.

Bhatt places his guitar flat on his lap, its body canted slightly forward. He puts his picks on the thumb and first two fingers of his right hand, adjusting them carefully. Picking up the metal slide, which he holds like a pencil, and dipping his left ring finger in the oil to ease its motion along the strings, he strikes the first note of the slow, free-form alap section of "Rag Poorvi." His slide moves like a snake, slithering sinuously up and down the guitar neck. The music is complex and brilliant, bursting with a passion and drama that belies Bhatt's gently intellectual demeanor.

Though best known internationally for the Grammy-winning "A Meeting by the River," his cross-cultural collaboration with Ry Cooder, Bhatt is at heart a pure Indian classical musician. The music he plays on his solo records and in concerts is firmly centered in the classical tradition, and only his choice of instrument sets him somewhat apart from the Indian mainstream. Bhatt is one of a handful of players who have attempted to play the classical ragas on slide guitar, and he has taken the instrument further than any of his predecessors. His combination of blinding speed and faultless, flowing legato passages is astonishing, showing a level of technical expertise virtually unmatched in the history of the instrument.

Though Bhatt only recently came to the attention of American audiences, in his home country he has long been an established concert artist. The third son of a well-known musical family based in Jaipur, in the state of Rajastan, he has been studying music for virtually all of his 42 years. "My father used to sing, and my mother also," he says, relaxing on a couch in the home of his Boston concert promoter. His English is strongly accented, and he sometimes has to pause apologetically and search for a word or phrase. "My father used to teach students and, when he was teaching, the sound was coming into my ears. So, without the formal training, without my father sitting and teaching me, I was learning all those compositions, all the ragas which my father taught. Before the student would sing, I would start singing, because he used to teach them all the same compositions and it got in my ears."

Bhatt was groomed from childhood for a musical career. "All of my family were connected with music," he says. "And some, like great-grandfather, they were also poets. My eldest brother, he is a sitar player, and my other brother plays violin. So, after some time, I also started with sitar. I learned sitar for two, three years, and then for two, three years after that I learned violin. Then finally I took this instrument, the guitar, when I was 16, because my brothers were playing violin and sitar and I wanted something different."

Bhatt says that when he took up the guitar most Indians still considered it appropriate only for light music and pop film scores. "People didn't expect serious classical music out of the guitar," he says, adding that much of the skepticism came from his own relatives. "My family are very, very traditional people and we stick to our tradition and our traditional instruments always. So when I started playing guitar some of my family members were afraid; they thought this instrument cannot go up to that extent to which sitar or sarod can go. They warned me, and my eldest brother also warned me, that I should be prepared--that you can lose also if you are trying this instrument. They said 'Why don't you play sitar? Sitar is sure and we know it can go up to the highest level. How far can you go with this?' But I was always thinking that I should create something different, something unusual, so I told them 'OK, let me take the challenge.'"

At the age of 19 or 20, Bhatt embarked on a professional concert career. At first, he says promoters were wary of him because of the guitar's reputation. However, after his debut appearance in Bombay received good reviews, the oddity of his instrument began to work in his favor. "It was a new thing," he says. "People were surprised and said, 'Oh, he is doing a good job.' There were both reactions. People were appreciating that 'Oh, he is working hard on this, so we must encourage him at that.' And then some people were saying 'Oh, no, this instrument cannot play like a sitar can play.' But after listening to my concert they would accept it. The newspapers wrote very good remarks about me and immediately after my first concert HMV company approached me for releasing some records. So in that case I was very lucky, and after that people came to know about this."

Lest anyone be mislead, Bhatt was not the first Indian classical slide guitarist, though he has taken the style to an unprecedented level of virtuosity. "It's a comparitively new venture," he says. "But about 50 years ago some artists tried to play classical music, although in a very different style. They used to keep the guitar in a different position, like you play bottleneck guitar, rather than on the lap. Then gradually a few artists tried this Hawaiian style." The most successful was Brij Bhushan Kabra, a marvelously deep and emotional player who can be heard on a CD available from Celluloid Records. Although Bhatt never saw Kabra perform, he greatly admired the older man's playing, and considers him an early inspiration.

Although he knew of the existence of other guitarists, Bhatt found no one in Jaipur who could teach Indian classical slide playing. Therefore, the young player had to work out his own techniques. "It was very difficult," he says. "But music was in my blood. I had seen Hawaiian guitar playing, so I knew how the instrument was held, and the rest I mostly did myself." His picking style, which uses the index and middle fingers plucking alternately on the same string, was adapted from vina technique. However, vina players anchor the thumb (rather like bass guitarists), while Bhatt chose instead to anchor his little finger, leaving the thumb free to strum the lower drone strings.

Along with developing his own style, Bhatt developed a unique instrument on which to play. The Western guitar could not meet all of the demands of the Indian style, so he began to make modifications that would bring it closer to standard Indian stringed instruments like the sitar and sarod. These have three kinds of strings: the melody strings, which are fretted with the left hand; chikari (the root note) and other drone strings, which are not fretted but are occasionally strummed; and tarab, or sympathetic strings, which are not played but are tuned so that they vibrate sympathetically with the other strings. Kabra had already altered the string arrangement, providing the Indian juxtaposition of melody strings and drones, but Bhatt wanted something more.

"I was used to the sound of the sitar, with its sympathetic strings," Bhatt says. "So I started experimenting with my instrument. I had a hammer and screwdriver and different things and I tried and was able to put on four tarab, and I changed all the strings which the guitar originally was having, and put other strings for chikari and drones. But the result was not good, because I am not an instrument maker, I am just an artist." Bhatt laughs, and shakes his head from side to side. "So then I went to a guitar maker in Jaipur. His name was Mahavir--he is no more--and he was a sitar repairer. So I went to him and told him what I needed and he did it in the proper way. He put eight sympathetic strings for me. Then, gradually, I designed this instrument and I explained it to a guitar maker in Calcutta, Bhaba Sindhu Bishwas is his name, and he made this one with 12 sympathetic strings in 1988."

With Bhatt's success, other young guitarists have followed his lead and now his style of instrument is becoming a standard model. "Everyone is having now this sort of guitar," he says. "They go to the shop and ask 'What is like Bhatt's model? Give us that.' I play on TV and they watch me and then they're going immediately to buy one. The maker is now a big businessman, just making guitars for all of them. One guitar player, he came from Australia recently to my home in Jaipur and he took one of these guitars, and one dobro player from Japan, he also came to my house and took one."

Bhatt's own guitar is the prototype and it bears the scars of several false starts and experiments. It is arranged with three melody strings, two chikari and three drones, with 12 tarab running underneath them. Bhatt takes it from its case and lovingly runs the slide up the neck, playing a few delicate lines of music. The instrument has a quite harsh tone, but in the intimate living-room setting Bhatt plays with a gentleness that is surprising after the passion of his concert work. The experience is rather like hearing a great singer humming to himself, an apt simile when one considers the stress Indian instrumentalists place on a vocal-centered musical approach. "Vocal music is very important in Indian classical music," Bhatt says. "If you can come very close to singing style on your instrument, that is very good. If you are able to get this freedom, and express your expressions which are in your mind, that is tremendous."

Bhatt feels that the ability to duplicate vocal lines is one of the slide guitar's great advantages over some traditional Indian instruments. "In sitar, you have some limitations," he says. "When you play mir, which means you are going from one note to another without breaking the sound [in Western terminology, legato], in sitar you play mir by pulling the string [behind the raised frets], and you can pull a string for maximum four notes or maybe five. But with Hawaiian guitar we can cover whole octaves or more just by moving the slide."

Bhatt uses a four-inch length of solid steel curtain rod as a slide, filing the end till it is perfectly rounded and smooth. He says he has experimented with glass and other metals, but he finds the heavy steel the best for his purposes. The weight and solidity gives him the sustain he needs for his extended legato passages, which can include a dozen clearly articulated notes. His current slide is discolored with age and, though the end is kept shiny with regular use, it is beginning to rust on the sides. However, Bhatt says this is a good thing, as it makes the bar easier to hold. Unlike other Hawaiian-style players, who hold their slide flat across the strings and damp the notes behind the slide with the side of their little finger, Bhatt holds his slide at an angle so that the rounded end contacts only one string at a time and he damps with the tip of his oiled ring finger.

Considering the modifications he has made in the instrument, and his unique playing technique, it is not particularly far-fetched for Bhatt to think of himself as apart from the rest of the guitar world. Though in conversation he refers to his instrument as guitar or Hawaiian guitar, on his record labels it is called a mohan vina. In Indian classical parlance "vina" is a generic term for stringed instruments, but in this case it more specifically it refers to the slide guitar's closest Indian relative, the vichitra vina, a large instrument which is played by sliding a round glass ball along the plucked strings.

"I listened to a great deal of vichitra vina," Bhatt says. "But really I must say I don't like the sound of vina much, because it is very shrill and thin. Also, you are not able to play fast moments on it because it is a very big instrument, so you have to cover two feet or something like that for an octave. It takes time to reach there, and that puts a certain limit on your speed. The Hawaiian guitar is not so big, so you can play whatever you want. Then, the guitar can have a deep sound, very close to sarod in the bass especially, and when I go to the high octave is sounds sometime like sitar or vina, so it is like a combination of all three in one. So this instrument has almost no limitations, it depends only on your skill."

However, Bhatt is quick to add that the guitar presents special problems along with its advantages. "Especially, it is very difficult to play," he says, smiling ruefully. "In sitar we have frets, like in Spanish guitar, but in this Hawaiian slide style you have to place your rod just at the right place; you have to be very accurate. You cannot see the notes, so you just have to feel and listen to it with your ears. It's like you never know what is going to be there, and you have to practice very, very hard, I think four times more than any other instrument."

Though he has spent much of his life as a crusader to elevate the reputation of the guitar, Bhatt stresses that all technical and instrumental considerations must be secondary to the music. He feels that by now his choice of instrument has ceased to be a novelty and it is time he was considered less as a guitarist per se than as a composer and improviser. "In the early days, people were wondering if the guitar could do this music," he says. "But now I have crossed that period, that struggling or making people convinced. Now they know that this can be done, because I have played in about every city and big concert in India. So now they can think more about the music. Because what I am playing is just pure Indian traditional classical music; it has nothing to do with the instrument as such. The important thing is the music that you are playing, that it should be pure and strong."

Strong, Bhatt's music certainly is. In concert, he plays with a fierce power that sets him apart from his more introspective contemporaries. He often describes his playing as aggressive, and says that some Indian critics have even considered it too much so. "One newspaper, he writes that he listened to me 15 years before and now he finds me even more aggressive," he says. "And it's true. But it is because so many people in India, especially the young people, they go for all this popular music, film music or Western music, especially this MTV. So my aim is to get them and not let them go away. Because our music has everything in it, its potential is so rich. My goal is to reach the young people that are behind the music like pop, jazz, rock, disco, so that they should know this music is so great. I want to make it interesting; I don't want to lose them for a single minute; I want to be in contact with them all the time."

In this new crusade, Bhatt is finding that the guitar is an invaluable asset. Though his music is in the classical tradition, Bhatt's instrument makes it easier for him to reach an generation weaned on rock videos. It also creates a cross-cultural bond which accounts for much of his recent popularity in the West. It was because he was a guitarist that he first came to the attention of Ry Cooder, leading to his recent Grammy and the attendant surge of interest in his music. "After Water Lily acoustics released my first CD, someone gave a copy to this Mr. Ry Cooder," Bhatt says, describing how the collaboration came about. "He liked it so much that he made very good remarks and they put a sticker on the CD with his words. So Mr. Kavi Alexander, the producer, told him 'Why don't you two do something together?'"

Bhatt says that Cooder was immediately interested, but he himself was more reluctant. "First of all, I was not sure what I can do," he says. "I didn't know what is this music, blues music, and usually we Indian classical musicians, we feel, 'Oh, how will we combine with such music?' So in the first instance I refused, I thought it won't be possible for me." Alexander, however, did not give up. "He continued to call me and the co-producer of the record, Shankar Corporation also approached me. He said 'You should just do it once, and then you see what happens.' So I said OK, because I enjoy experimenting with different things."

Bhatt frequently stresses the experimental nature of the collaboration, pointing out that he first met Cooder only half an hour before they began recording. "He brought many guitars, and he started playing some different things," Bhatt recalls. "I was just looking and listening to it, thinking how can I combine. I composed the first piece, 'A Meeting by the River,' then and there, after listening to some of his music that was similar to that scale."

(A brief explanation: Classical ragas are not compositions in the European sense, but rather are set scales consisting of a certain series of notes ascending and sometimes a different series descending. Each raga is defined by a scale and certain key phrases, and is divided in several sections defined by their tempo and time signature.)

"That is how the first piece went," Bhatt continues. "And then I had in my mind a composition in 7 1/2 beats, but when I played it Ry said he didn't find it suitable. So I said 'OK, forget it, I won't play anything like that. You just play whatever you want.' Then he played a tune which is closer to my music; the composition 'Longing' is close to our rag 'Nat Bhairavi.' So I played that, but not in the purely classical way, because when you combine with someone you cannot play your own traditional music; it is so different. So I changed and combined with him. The next composition [Ganges Delta Blues] is closer to our rag 'Dhani' [the pentatonic blues scale]. I told him to play something and let me see what I can do in that, and I suggested him to play in this scale if he has something in his mind liked this. Then I thought, 'Oh, this is good, because it is closer to our rag.' It was not necessary that it should be closer, but you know sometimes that can make it easier to improvise. So that's how we were doing it, recording and composing and recording."

Considering the impromtu nature of the session, Bhatt frankly admits that he was surprised at the acclaim the record received. "I did not expect that much success for it," he says, laughing. "I thought it was a nice CD, and that it would go well, but this was really sort of unexpected. But we got very good remarks from the newspapers and magazines, so we were very hopeful that it would click."

Glad as he is for the international attention the Grammy is bringing him, Bhatt is quick to agree that the playing on "Meeting by the River" does not come up to the standards of his solo work. "On this record, we were having nice fun, and it was very enjoyable," he says. "But when we play Indian classical, it is like the complete form. It is systematic and every movement is there--fast movement, slow movement--it is so complete. When we combine with someone in another style it is something else, no system is there actually."

Asked how the collaboration has been received by Indian audiences, Bhatt says it has not yet been released there. However, he is more than willing to hazard a guess about the likely reaction. "They will think, 'Oh, it is very different,'" he says. "The traditional people of Indian classical music, they don't like this sort of thing, or at least very few of them. But some people think also in a different manner, that 'Oh, it is good that he has combined like this, because this is the way we can reach out to the West.' Our aim is to spread our music and to make people know about our music, what this music is. So I am proud that I have succeeded in this mission like this, because it has reached so many places. Now, after winning the Grammy, it says that I am a bit successful in spreading my music, my Indian classical tradition. It is in a different manner, but this is the way we can make Western people understand what is our music. So in this light, the Indian classical people also like it."

Though he still sees many challenges ahead, Bhatt feels that on the whole he has accomplished his original objectives. "I was trying to change the image of this instrument," he says. "Now I have been performing for more than twenty years and people know that the guitar has the capabilities of playing Indian classical music in this manner. There are still very few Indian classical guitarists, five or six people only, but now there is very much interest. Because it has been proved that the instrument can go up to this level, so some surety is there. Also, I have a few students, and they are doing very well. So I think that I am successful."

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ALI FARKA TOURE INTERVIEW (written for Acoustic Guitar in 1993)

"For some people, when you say 'Timbuktu' it is like the end of the world, but that is not true. I am from Timbuktu and I can tell you we are right at the heart of the world." Ali Farka Toure is lounging on a couch at his motel in Boston, chain-smoking strong cigarettes and talking about his life, his culture, and his music in a rich, accented French. Though he has spent most of his life in the small hamlet of Niafunke, by the banks of the Niger River in Northern Mali, Toure seems completely confident and at home in these foreign surroundings. He has the assurance of an acknowleged master, an artist secure in his abilities and his uniqueness.

The best-known acoustic guitarist to come out of Africa in recent decades, Toure first attracted widespread attention with his eponymous 1987 album on the English World Circuit label. The cut which received most comment was "Amandrai," a song in the Tamashek language which features a guitar accompaniment remarkably similar to John Lee Hooker's "Tupelo." Toure was hailed as "the Malian John Lee Hooker," an African musician who had adapted African-American blues styles to fit his own conceptions. Three later albums showed less distinct blues lineage, but Toure's reputation was set. He regularly appears on programs with blues performers, and is generally hailed as the great African bluesman.

Though in early interviews he seemed happy with the blues label, by now Toure finds it inaccurate and annoying. "The journalists always ask me the same questions," he says. "They always want to know about blues. I say the word 'blues' means nothing to me. I do not know blues, I know the African tradition. The music that you call blues, I can call by it's proper name. I can call it agnani, I can call it djaba. I can call it amandrai or amakari, the music played on the indigenous guitar, the one-string or the three-string. I can also call it kakamba. There are many names for this legendary art.

"The first time I heard John Lee Hooker's music, I recognized it immediately. I argued with people, I said 'This is not possible, how can this exist in America?' Because these are not Western tunes. Not at all. This music is 100% African, and particularly from Mali. The tunes he plays are some of them in the Tamashek style, some in the Bozo style, some in Songhai style and some in Peul. John Lee Hooker does not know the sources of his music. I respect him and appreciate his genius as the translator of African music in the United States, but my music is the roots and the trunk, and he is only the branches and the leaves. These are our tunes, and he plays them without understanding them."

That may sound extreme, but Toure is not boasting about his personal abilities; he is describing what he sees as a simple historical truth. He admires the musicianship of the great bluesmen and tells with pride of his collaborations with them. His latest album, The Source, on Hannibal Records, includes two duets with Taj Mahal, and on his last tour he performed with B.B. King and Buddy Guy and recorded with Ry Cooder and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown. However, much as he loves their music, he knows that his is an older form. He speaks highly of Brown's technical prowess, but always ends by quoting Brown's reaction to their session: "He is one of the great blues guitarists, and he told me frankly that it was only now that he had discovered the source of what he does. And that is natural, because all of this music comes from my home."

Toure can quote similar remarks from other artists, and they have given him confidence that, after being inspired by blues records, it is now his turn to teach and inspire. He feels that, good as they are musically, the bluesmen have lost touch with the original spirit of the music. "They say nothing," he says. "They speak only of alcohol or beer or whiskey, and that is not what this music is about. It is very far from that, completely the opposite. It is a very historic music; it has wisdom and knowlege. It speaks of cows, of greenery, of a man with his animals in the wilderness who hears certain sounds which do not come from the animals, but from nature. It speaks of love and of harmony in the family. All of these tunes have their words, their legend, and their story, and it is not beer or whiskey."

Toure says his music is the oldest and most powerful in West Africa, the music the nomadic herdsmen of the Sahara played when they were alone, to please themselves and the spirits. It was developed on small, light instruments that could be easily carried by people who traveled long miles on foot, ancient ancestors of the complex, 21-stringed koras and long trumpets of the court and city musicians. Long before he played guitar, Toure was a master of the reed flute, the one-string violin or djerka, and his first love, the one-string njurkel, his "monochord," or "little guitar."

"I made my njurkel myself in 1951," he says. "It is made with a small calabash, a wooden neck, and a string of horse hair or silver wire. It is not even 50 centimeters [about 20"] long, and it is the most dangerous instrument in Africa, because it is an instrument uniquely for the spirits. It can do things that no other instrument can bring out. There are tunes that I play on the njurkel that I cannot approach on the guitar, at least for the moment."

Toure no longer travels with his njurkel, which he gave to Ry Cooder, but to demonstrate the music of his youth he brings out the djerka. It is tiny, with a body like an oval banjo head barely the size of his hand. The bow is a small bent stick about ten inches long, strung with white horse hair, and both bow and instrument look like child's toys. When he starts to play, though, the music is complex and inventive, a high, beautiful melody that sounds as ancient as the wind and makes one's whole body sway to its rhythms.

"This is my teacher," Toure explains. "It gives me my melodies. The njurkel was first and then I built this in '54 because the njurkel caused me so much trouble. The njurkel is very genetic [a word he uses to mean that it is connected to genii and spirits]. When one is playing it at night, you hear it a kilometer away. In the daytime, it does not reach even twenty meters. I could play it here and someone standing in the doorway would not be able to hear it, but at night you hear it for a kilometer."

It was on a visit to Guinea, with njurkel in hand, that Toure saw his first guitar, an event he commemorates on The Source with "Cinquante-six," the only guitar instrumental he has recorded (see tablature). "In Guinea in '56 I saw one of the greatest guitarists I have met in my life, and the finest in West Africa, Fode Ba Keita," he says. "He was the director of a group called Joliba [later Ballets Africaines] and he was playing traditional Malinke music on the guitar, singing in Bambara and French. I had my little guitar with me and when I saw him playing African tunes on the modern guitar I said to myself in my head 'I play the guitar too. Couldn't I do the same thing he does?' Only, instead of playing the songs he played, I wanted to play the music of the njurkel, to tell our stories and play our tunes. And that was how I began."

As a guitarist, Toure says he was entirely self-taught. "It is very easy for me, it is a gift," he says. "I was never at school. Never. I have always made my own way." It was an unusual path, made more so by the fact that his people have never been musicians. "I am from a very noble family, from a very great tribe," Toure says. "So it was not at all normal that I should be an artist. But one cannot go against a gift, so although they tried to change my mind I never accepted it. Still, I have never adopted music as a profession. I have many professions. I am a shoemaker first, all my people are shoemakers. I did farming, fishing, raising animals, and I was a mechanic and a driver. So it is only after I have done all my necessary work for the year that I can give myself to music, and then it is like a vacation."

As a sort of gentleman amateur, a man who plays purely for the love of the music, Toure is scathing in his contempt for the griots, the traditional bards and professional court musicians who continue to dominate the Malian music scene. While Toure's predecessors were playing for their animals and the spirits, the griots developed some of the most sophisticated music on the African continent. Today, innovators like Foday Muso Susa and More Konte, among dozens of others, have brought the griot tradition into the modern world and achieved international aclaim with their astonishing kora improvisations. American researchers like Sam Charters have even looked to the griots as the forerunners of the bluesmen, and they are regularly represented as carrying on the deepest local traditions.

Toure, however, sees them much as a hard-core blues fan might regard George Michael or Michael Bolton, as facile and soulless pop musicians. "Griotism is done for flattery and exploitation," he says. "It has nothing to do with my music. The music I do is a music of education, to influence people and bring them to reason. It is not only a music of peace and prosperity. It has the teachings of the spirits, which one must bring forth. There are messages that one must bring to people, so that they can remain on the right road. This art, it has love and says you must love those around you. Griotism is only to flatter someone in order to get something from him.

"My music was always part of my work of education, love, evolution, and criticisms," Toure says. "I take the tradition, and I translate all that I can of the music of my country. I find an indigenous guitarist who gives me the tunes, and I learn them and practice. The words are already there, they are legends that I know. So I only adapt, I translate that which has been dictated to me by the old people. I speak nine languages, because I am there for everybody, not only for one individual. Honey is not good in only one mouth. And that is what has made me popular and successful, because I play for everyone."

Even for those who cannot understand his lyrics, Toure on stage is a vibrant and exciting performer. He laughs easily, dances in time with his playing, and takes an obvious and infectious pleasure in his music. In recent years, he has been joined by two young family members who flesh out his sound with vocal responses and light percussion, younger brother Oumar Toure on conga drums and a nephew, Hamma Sankare, beating with two sticks on the rounded upper half of a dried calabash.

In Boston, Toure brought four guitars on stage, two electric and two acoustic, but played almost the entire set on electric. Each song would start with a short arhythmic obbligato, his fingers running up and down the fretboard. Then, as the drums started in perfect synchrony, he would lock into a groove, a hypnotic, walking rhythm and steady, repeated riff supporting his soulful vocals. Often one riff would carry the whole song, or break for very brief, hard solos, a quick musical phrase shouted out above the regular rhythm.

It was only for the encore that Toure picked up his acoustic guitar, giving a gorgeous reading of "Amandrai." A looser melodic exploration than most of his pieces, it was the high point of the concert, his delicate acoustic picking revealing a subtler touch and greater dynamic range than the electric work. As Toure is best known as an acoustic guitarist, the reliance on electric seemed surprising, but apparently it was just a matter of chance. "It depends on my own choice," he said, explaining that the previous evening he had not touched the electric at all. "Sometimes I want to play one, sometimes the other. There is no difference at all for me, it is only the sound that differs. That is, I can play all the tunes I want on either. They are the same tunes, the same notes, the same spirits. For me, personally, it makes me less tired to play the acoustic, because the electric is more difficult, it hurts my fingers more. But sometimes I like to let the acoustic be, because I work so much with it."

Toure kept a capo on the second fret throughout the concert, and he played virtually everything in C and G. For the C pieces, he played in standard tuning, while for the pieces in G, he tuned his low E string up to G and his A string up to B, giving him an open G chord in the bass, over which he could freely improvise variations. "It all comes from my little guitar," he says. "To have the sound of the little guitar one must tune like this. With the different tunings, I have all of nature before me. I just have to touch the strings and everything flows from my head. There, I am directly in contact with the music; I do not have to watch my fingers and see what I do. The moment I begin, it is all there."

Often, as he plays, Toure's whole face will light up in a smile, and he will seem surprised and amused by the sounds coming from his hands, almost as if the guitar was another musician. "I am as transported as those who are listening," he says. "Because this is what I live for. This music goes deep into my heart and if my fingers give me satisfaction, if I like what I hear, then I am very, very contented. Of course, there are moments when one cannot feel like that, but then one only has to wait a little while and one will get that feeling back."

To Toure, the feeling is everything, and he believes there are things in his music that can never be learned. "If one gives this music to a professional he cannot play it, because this is very different from what he does. There is no music theory about it. I may play it in a certain way, but there are many different tunings. One can tune the guitar like a monochord, one can tune it like the indigenous guitar, one can tune it like the indigenous violin. All to get the same sounds, but differently. Because sounds are like that. That is what makes the melody, and melody is the reality of the road we are making. For us, this is the tradition. Thus, every tune means something, every tune has its legend. Every tune has a story which is deeply part of nature, not invented by X or Y. These are things that are very, very deep in the legends. And they are things that we are not allowed to speak of beyond a certain point."

Questions about Toure's music often come up against this barrier. When asked about certain songs, he will say that he cannot explain the meaning, though he knows it, because it is something that should not be revealed. He suggests reading a book by the French scholar and poet Jean-Marie Gibbal, Les Genies du Fleuve, recently published by the University of Chicago Press as Genii of the River Niger, which gives an in-depth picture of the beliefs and practices of the cults of Northern Mali. Then, by way of explaining his own hesitancy to give fuller descriptions, he tells us that Gibbal came back to write a later book and delved too deeply. "We gave him very good advice," he says, shaking his head. "We said there are certain things one must not approach. If you believe, you must not approach, and if you do not believe, you must not approach. I think he did not believe us; he wanted to write about this. So today, everything goes on behind his back; he died last year."

This sort of mystical belief underlies all of Toure's talk, and is integral to his music. It is so basic to his world view that it produces a translator's problem. In French, the word genie can mean either genius or genie, and the word esprit is commonly used for spirit in the sense of mind or intelligence as well as for a ghost or sprite. In Toure's speech, one is often unsure which meaning to use, and it seems probable that for him not only the words but the concepts are synonymous, that ideas come from spirits and genius is simply the manifestation of a friendly genie. At first, when he speaks of les esprits giving him a certain tune, a Westerner is liable to take the term metaphorically, but for him it is simple reality.

"The spirits exist, just like people," he says. "All the entire world was made with the earth, and man came from the earth, but the spirits came from fire. The spirits are all around us, but to know them one must be a believer and understand Islam. He who doesn't understand will not believe, because it is not the same culture, the same tribe, the same earth. But the spirits exist in my country and they exist here." And, he adds, it is the spirits that are at the root of all art. "They are dreams which have been there forever," he says. "It is not we who created them, it is reality, it is nature. Only, they must have love for a person to give him power."

That idea, even more than his melodies and rhythms, may link Toure to the bluesmen and other great traditional artists of the African diaspora. One thinks of the Mississippi Delta legend: a mysterious black man meeting a guitarist at the crossroads and giving him unatural musical powers. When this idea is suggested, Toure immediately agrees. "It was almost the same thing for me," he says, nodding. "Music is a gift. So, when one says 'blues,' that means nothing. It is the African tradition. In Haiti, in the Antilles, there is a thing you call voodoo, and it is real. It exists in Brazil. And where are the roots? In Mali, and on into Niger. A little in Benin. All the rest now, they only copy. These are roots which go out and which reach all over. But the holder of all the secrets is one person, and that is a secret one can never reveal. And it is that which makes music."

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DAVE VAN RONK INTERVIEW (written for Sing Out! in 1996)

I first saw Dave Van Ronk perform at Boston's Jordan Hall, sometime around 1972. He remembers the gig as well, because there were about 15 people in the theater. I don't remember anything about that. All I remember is Van Ronk's incredible stage presence He seemed to grow and fill the whole room, singing with a hypnotic intensity that made it impossible to think of anything else.

Over the next couple of years, I bought all of Van Ronk's records and, like hundreds of callow youths before me, dropped my Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger inflections and set out to master his style. Undaunted by my utterly dissimilar vocal equipment, I howled and whispered my way through "Cocaine Blues" in my best approximation of a Van Ronkian growl. My father still remembers it as the funniest thing he ever heard.

Five years later I went off to New York for a year of college, simply to take guitar lessons from the great man. Then, as now, he was nurturing a steady stream of young pickers eager to learn from the man who invented classic ragtime guitar, taught Dylan to fingerpick, and reigned as musical mayor of Greenwich Village in the glory days of what he somewhat acidly remembers as "the great folk scare." (Others have used the phrase, but he lays strong claim to being the originator.)

The first time I walked into Van Ronk's apartment, I was startled at how different it was from my worshipful imaginings. Instead of a rough bluesman, there was a large, soft-spoken gentleman in wire-frame glasses, peering up at me from the corner of an immense couch. The room was dominated by a modernist canvas depicting a sink, and a great carved bird of New Guinean origin flew off the lefthand wall over an antique gold clock in a glass bell. A globe glowed in the corner by the windows, which were brown from years of pipe and cigar smoke.

The lesson went well, and there were many more. Often they ran on into hours of conversation and dinner, which Van Ronk would cook with the same care and scholarship he put into his guitar arrangements. Then the whiskey would come out and the talk would stop as he put on some music: Jelly Roll Morton or Duke Ellington, or Groucho Marx, or Phillipe Koutev's Bulgarian Ensemble (Twenty years before the rest of the world caught on to the "Mystere des voix Bulgares," Van Ronk based his song "Honey Hair" on one of their melodies.). After opening a second bottle of whiskey, he might pull out an oddity like his duet with the Bahaman guitarist Joseph Spence on "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." Then more talk, until the drink was finished and I would stumble out into the morning sun.

These days, the couch has been replaced by another, equally huge. Andrea Vuocolo, who moved in in the early 1980s and married Van Ronk a few years later, has installed a concert harp in one corner of the room and insisted that the windows and a lot of other things get cleaned. The whiskey has been replaced by wine, and the evenings do not last quite as long. Van Ronk has lost over a hundred pounds and has reinvigorated his recording career on his old friend Sam Charters' Gazell label, which has released four albums including a career retrospective and a long-awaited set of swing standards.

On the whole, though, this evening is like a lot of others. Van Ronk is ensconced in his customary seat, an ashtray near at hand. A good meal has been eaten, an experiment in replicating precolonial East Indian cuisine by using black pepper instead of chilis. We have been listening to his new album, "To All My Friends in Far-Flung Places," a two-CD collection of songs by old

colleagues and acquaintances, and it has prompted a meditation on the singer/songwriter movement and the course of the contemporary folk music scene. As usual, Van Ronk has his own analysis of the situation and, as usual, it is phrased with the elegance of a man who considers conversation the sport of kings.

"In the great war between traditionalists and singer/songwriter fans I am a hilariously amused spectator," he says, suiting his expression to his words. "I think this is a battle that should be fought to the death with inflated pigs' bladders. It's the moldy fig wars all over again, with each side more asinine than the other and each argument more asinine than the next."

The aforesaid wars were fought between fans of traditional New Orleans jazz, the "moldy figs," and bebop modernists. In his youth, Van Ronk was a staunch moldy fig, flailing away at a tenor banjo in the rhythm section of the Brute Force Jazz Band. Having mellowed somewhat with the years, he is trying to avoid a descent into similar partisan bickering. He has a firm grounding in traditional folk music, he admires the work of many of the young writers, and he thinks it is high time people stopped taking sides and listened to the music.

Which is not to say that he shies away from strong opinions. "I suppose in a sense what I'm trying to do [with this album] is rescue the singer/songwriter movement from its own richly deserved obscurity," he says. "That is to say, the movement isn't really about singers and songwriters; it's about personalities. But there are some good songs and what I'm trying to do is to deal with the songs, to string together some of this contemporary stuff that I think deserves attention.

"You see, I think the singer/songwriter movement is a phenomenon with a big hole in the middle. It's doomed to fail aesthetically because nobody sings anybody else's songs. Anne Hills can write a song as beautiful as "Follow that Road," but nobody but Anne Hills is ever going to sing that goddamn song, unless she gets really lucky. And that's true of dozens and dozens of songs. In order to have a singer/songwriter movement you don't need simply good singer/songwriters; you need a host of interpreters"

It is not that Van Ronk is urging a return to traditionalist purism, to scholarly explications of "Barbara Allen" and fake rural accents. He did his time in those ideological salt mines forty years ago. In fact, he says, "I have no special brief for quote, folk music, end quote. I'm a singer. I'm a musician. I'm interested in good songs regardless of their provenance."

Indeed, Van Ronk has probably recorded in as many styles and genres as any artist around. A founder of the 1960s folk scene and mentor to at least three generations of New York singer/songwriters, he has also recorded albums of both New Orleans and swing jazz, two jug band records, and one of Bertholt Brecht songs. And that is not to mention his stint with Paul Clayton and the Fo'c'sle Singers, or his recent jug band recording of Peter and the Wolf.

Van Ronk likes to call himself a "cabaret singer," recalling not only French interpretive artists like Aristide Bruant, but also the sort of musically expansive shows Josh White and others did at Cafe Society and that Blossom Dearie, who lives just down the hall, continues to do today. And yet, when other people look for an adjective to describe him, they always seem to settle on "blues singer." It is a label that by now he can only regard with wry resignation.

"Like it says in the gospel, the poor you have always with you," he says. "I mean, people in music don't listen. That means they're just like everybody else. I was tagged as a blues singer, incorrectly, back in 1950-what, and now I could go and sing 'Pagliacci' and I would still be called a blues singer.

"Go back to the sixties and seventies. I was recording with traditional jazz bands. I was doing Brecht-Weill things. I had a rock band [The Hudson Dusters.] I believe I was the first person ever to record a Dylan tune. I was the first person to record a Joni Mitchell tune, or certainly one of the first. I've recorded Jacques Brel.

"My track record over the last thirty years is quite consistent: I've always been inconsistent. If people want to think of me as a blues singer, as some sort of albino Muddy Waters or something like that--well, they're entitled. But my rule has always been, anything that I like and that I think I can find a handle to, I'll take a whack at. And as it has been so shall it be."

Van Ronk has found that such eclecticism can present a problem in the ever more format-conscious world of commercial music-making. "Record companies always worried, because they didn't know how to pigeon-hole me," he says. "And I used to tell them 'Call it blues. Nobody will notice.' And I was right. These are indeed semantic questions, and I try not to let them bother me. People aren't handicapped because they call it all blues, they call it all blues because they are handicapped. They don't pay attention. So, they want to call me that, fine. And I do love to sing blues."

And, it must be said, blues is where Van Ronk made his first splash. Fresh from a jug band record he is still trying to forget, (The dread "Skiffle in Stereo," not his excellent Mercury album) he made two records for Folkways which signaled his arrival as the first white, urban singer to find his own voice in the country blues idiom. On those, as well as later albums, he mixed in white folk material, but he always sounded more like a bluesman than a hillbilly ("Mortimer Snerd's music was never mine," is his terse comment on that subject).

Blues is also where he found the basis for his guitar technique, in the playing of Furry Lewis, Josh White and Scrapper Blackwell. His principal influence, though, was the Reverend Gary Davis, who tended to eschew blues in favor of more harmonically complex forms like ragtime and gospel. Van Ronk took these techniques into new and hitherto uncharted waters. The result was a style that influenced few blues pickers, but informed the work of songwriters from Bob Dylan and Jackson Browne to Christine Lavin and Bill Morrissey.

"I am an accompanist," Van Ronk says firmly, when asked about his playing. "With the exception of a brief time in the 1950's when I wanted to be Mr. Superchops and seize the black belt from Dick Rosmini--fat chance--I've never been interested in that. I'm a singer. And I'm a singer who's very, very fussy about accompaniments. So, everything that I've learned to do on the guitar has been directed toward giving myself a better backup.

"What I am is a careful guitarist. I think about what I'm doing. My idol in this regard is Duke Ellington, who paid attention to voicings, timbre, dynamics, tone color and all that kind of thing. When I play "Maple Leaf Rag," there are probably 150 guitarists who could tear me a new asshole playing pretty much the same arrangement I do. But I didn't do that so I could do that. That was a research project, and what I learned from learning how to do that has been applied hundreds and hundreds of times since--to accompaniments, which is what I do do."

When one asks Van Ronk where he got the idea for a certain arrangement, the answer is often surprising. He traces innumerable blues accompaniments to Ellington's horn arrangements or Morton's piano pieces. His definitive setting of Joni Mitchell's "Urge for Going" harks back to Domenico Scarlatti, while his chart on Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" is "a pared-down version of the first two measures of the chorus of [the Rolling Stones'] 'Ruby Tuesday.'"

The borrowings are often so subtle that even their sources are astonished. Asked about a favorite guitar part, the spare, rolling riff that underlies his version of "Kansas City," Van Ronk tells a story about a concert at the Left Bank Cafe in Blue Hill, Maine. "Noel Stookey [Paul, of Peter, Paul and Mary] lives up there," he recalls. "So I got up and I did 'Kansas City,' and I said, 'Oddly enough I got the idea for this arrangement from one of your homeboys here, Noel Stookey.' I got off and, sure enough, Noel was in the house, and he said 'I don't remember playing anything like that.' So I picked up the guitar and I played that opening riff and I sang, 'Rain, rain, go away, come again another day.' And Noel got up and walked off. I said 'Where the hell are you going?' and he said 'I'm going to get my lawyer.'"

In these parlous times, when originality has become prized far beyond its worth and "folk music" fans will chide a singer of traditional songs for doing "covers," it is unusual to give credit so freely. Van Ronk thinks that is just silly. "In this business we all have our hands in each others pockets," he says. "I'm not unique; I know other people think roughly the same way I do. I might acknowledge things that other people won't acknowledge, but then I tend to remember where I got my ideas from and a lot of other people don't. Because most people don't really listen. Again we're back to that theme. They're not even aware that they're hearing something.

"Now, I don't use background music. I spend my time up here 999 hours out of a thousand with nothing playing, because I don't put music on unless I propose to listen to it. I don't believe in it. You should listen to music the same way you read a book or make love. Whatever thy hand findeth itself to do, do it with all thy might. Including listening."

The insistence on close listening goes back to Van Ronk's early training in jazz, acquired on Saturday afternoons from his first guitar teacher, Jack Norton. "Jack, or 'The Old Man' we used to call him, used to hold court in his apartment in Briarwood, which is in Queens," Van Ronk remembers fondly. "He had been an associate of Bix [Beiderbeck] and Eddie Lang's and he taught several instruments, including guitar, drums and all the reeds.

"Jack showed me some of the fingerings I still use, because he was of the old orchestral jazz school. Played non-amplified rhythm guitar, 'six notes to a chord, four to the bar, no cheating,' like Freddie Green [of the Count Basie Band] used to say. But, more important than that, he taught me how to listen. For example there's a game called 'name that sideman.' The way the game is played is somebody puts on a recording and doesn't tell you who's on it, and you have to sit there and name who's on every instrument.

"There are people whom you can't fool, who can tell you, 'No, that's not Ben Webster, that's Coleman Hawkins' or 'That's not Pres, that's Buddy Tate, or Paul Quinichette' and be right every time. And that requires a qualitatively different kind of listening. You can't just groove with the music, you have to bloody well pay attention. The Old Man used to put on recordings and we would play 'name that sideman' and we didn't know it, he never told us, but it was listening training. You had to listen with a focus and an intensity that normal people never use. But we weren't normal people, we were musicians. And the kind of listening that normal people do will not serve for a musician.

"Without that training I got from Jack and hanging around with other would-be jazz musicians, all the other things wouldn't really mean much," Van Ronk says, and he means it. In terms of musical knowledge, he has often felt like Gulliver in Lilliput beside the unschooled folkies around him, but he can remember his days in Brobdingnag, playing rhythm guitar at jam sessions that could occasionally include giants like Coleman Hawkins or Johnny Hodges. Asked what they thought of his efforts, he grimaces and says "They were always very polite."

It may be hard for some listeners to trace the jazz influence in Van Ronk's reading of, say, Ian Tyson's "Four Strong Winds," but he insists it is always there. "The jazz sensibility is essentially a way of looking at music," he says. "And the general rules that apply to singing jazz apply to a great many other musics. Singing a phrase behind a beat. Singing a phrase rubato. Or varying between rubato, legato, then coming in right on the beat. It's a way of interpreting material, almost any material. I wouldn't recommend that Pavarotti try it; I don't think it would help his material much at all. But with a great deal of material, it does work."

If jazz became Van Ronk's musical touchstone, he found a complementary discipline in the study of literature, especially poetry. Just as he interprets Woody Guthrie's phrasing with an ear trained by Coleman Hawkins, he will judge an old blues lyric by standards adapted from reading Shakespeare or Walt Whitman. Of course, a lot of people in the folk world cite jazz and poetry as influences, often with more pretension than accuracy. The difference in Van Ronk's case is that he really is grounded in both disciplines, and in both cases his training pushes him not towards complex showiness but towards greater simplicity.

"Poetry is automatically suspect to me," he says. "If you're a good enough poet, you can make bullshit sound so beautiful that people will buy it. I used to see Dylan Thomas over at the old White Horse [a neighborhood bar] back in the early 50's, and he used to recite when he had had enough to drink, which was usually. And my jaw would drop: It was beautiful, it was gorgeous. And a lot of it was bullshit. Not all of it, by any means, but a lot.

"I have several books of poetry that I wrote between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five that are full of beautiful bullshit. But I came to the conclusion that you should never say anything in poetry that you can't say in prose. Poetry has the same obligation to make sense as any other statement made by the human mouth. That lets out a lot of stuff that is generally considered to be great poetry, but bullshit is bullshit. This is something I learned from, of all people, Ezra Pound, who insisted that poetry be concise and make sense. If it doesn't make sense no one will read it, and if no one reads it, it might as well not be written."

Van Ronk's compositions, or at least those he has recorded and performed, tend to be models of clarity. They range from straightforward blues pieces to the romping hokum of "Sunday Street," the late-night, Irish whiskey ballad sound of "Last Call" and the romantic lyricism of "Another Time and Place." And that is not even mentioning the numerous uncredited additions and alterations he has made to the traditional material in his repertoire. Overall, the quality of his writing is so high that one wonders why he does not do more of it.

The answer, simply enough, is that he does not need to. "I never set out to be a song writer," he says. "And I don't feel guilty if I don't write a song. I've probably written enough for several albums, especially if I included my culls. But I don't depend on my song writing and if I think something isn't all that great I can afford to drop it. There are plenty of people out there writing good songs; they need another songwriter like a loch in kop [Yiddish: hole in the head]."

Also, his own songs are facing stiff competition from his other material. Selected over a lifetime of hard listening, Van Ronk's repertoire is unmatched in the folk world for its range and richness. Songs like "Cocaine" and "Green Rocky Road" have become so closely associated with him that many fans are unaware that he did not in fact write them. This means that when he writes a new song it has to stand up beside forty years of tasteful acquisitions. And Van Ronk has very little sense of favoritism.

"If you are a performer, you're a leader," he says. "You are being paid to get up there and say about music, 'This is what I think.' Sometimes you will be wrong, and you'll have to rethink something. It's like the Spanish saying: 'If one man calls you a horse, ignore it. If two men call you a horse, think it over. If three men call you a horse, get a saddle.' But always you are the judge, because you are the performer and you can't abdicate that responsibility. Everything you do is an exposition, a discursion, whether you think of it that way consciously or not."

Which seems like as good a thought as any to end with. Now, it's time for another bottle of wine. From his seat on the couch, Van Ronk directs me over to the stereo and I put on the first record.

Back to the Archive Contents page

JOHN JACKSON INTERVIEW (written for Sing Out! in 1994)

John Jackson sits back in his chair, talking in a slow, sweet Virginia drawl.

"How I started out playing was a convict got me. He was a water boy on a chain gang and he was toting water from our spring. I met him at the spring and he wanted to know what everybody did around there. I told him, we dance, we pitch horse-shoes, and my father worked on the farm and played the guitar, banjo, mandolin, ukelele, made these penny whistles. He said, 'If you'll bring your daddy's guitar down here, I'll play you a song.'

"So I used to get the guitar out of the house and meet him at the spring. He'd play me a tune, get his water and serve the prisoners, little while he'd be back, play me another tune. It went on like that for about six months and they took the chain off his leg and made a trustee out of him. Then every evening at six o'clock he would come over to the house and play us songs and sing. Mom would fix dinner for him and he'd stay till about quarter of nine and us little 'uns'd walk him back to the camp. Then another six months they set him free and so he stayed with us a couple of days and he got up that morning, said he had to go away for a couple of days, but I'll be back. So we followed him to the nearest little town and helped him with his bags and he caught the mail truck and we never did see him no more.

"We never did know his real name, never did know where he was from. All we ever knew his name was Happy. And he was the happiest man you ever saw in your life. He was whistling or singing or laughing or something all the time, like he never had to worry about nothing. He was a fantastic guitarist. He played very much like Lonnie Johnson, in open tunings and just regular tuning, and he did finger picking, he played some slide. And everybody ever heard him said they never heard anything like it.

"There was one fellow that was in the neighborhood from Mississippi and he was a blues guitarist that was no man could beat him playing no guitar. His name was Tom Terrell and he played around there and he was good. And my father said 'Tom,' says 'If Happy come here and get hold of that guitar, you ain't gonna want to play it no more.'

"Tom Terrell said 'If Happy comes back here, I'm gonna put him underneath that road he's building.'"

Jackson is laughing so hard that he has to wipe tears from his eyes.

"So one Sunday morning they all got together and got up underneath the big locust tree. Tom Terrell played, Roosevelt Carter, Snookum Turner, Charlie Beck, there was a whole bunch of people sitting around playing, and my father said 'Happy, pick that guitar up there and show Tom Terrell how to play it.'

"Well, Happy commenced to picking that guitar; and Tom Terrell got so mad he cried like a baby and when he handed him the guitar back, he took it and busted it up over the rock right there and he never did play it no more round there. He really did. If some of the older heads was still alive that was there at that time, they'd tell you just like I'm telling you."

Jackson pauses to have a drink of water. He is sitting in a motel room in Corning, New York, where he will be playing at a small outdoor blues festival. He is relaxed and hospitable, and seems at home in these surroundings, but his voice and dress recall another time and place. The wide-brimmed hat and suspenders, and the gentle, molasses flow of his words come out of Rappahannock County, Virginia, where he grew up in the 1920s and '30s.

Jackson is one of the last great old-time guitar pickers and singers whose work fuses all the musics of the rural south. As much a country singer as a bluesman, he cheerfully plays anything from ragtime to hoedowns and remains proudly free of musical prejudices. "I don't play soul or disco or rap music or nothing like that," he says. "But I don't have anything against it; it just didn't come along when I did. I can play rock music, but I don't get into that because you can't hardly play it with one instrument. But I'm able to play a Hank Williams song, or Jimmy Rodgers, Ernest Tubb, Bob Wills, Vernon Dalhart, or Elvis Presley, or anybody else if anybody asks for it."

In Rappahannock County, as in much of the not-so-deep South, African-Americans listened and danced to much the same music as their European-American neighbors, sometimes at the same dances. The main instruments were fiddle, banjo, guitar, and accordion, and the songs were from what could be quite accurately called the Afro-Celtic tradition, numbers like "Old Joe Clark," "Boil Them Cabbage Down," and "Get Along Home, Cindy." It was back porch and square dance music, played by neighbors for one another's pleasure and amusement.

"Everybody did it for their own enjoyment, and to celebrate on the weekend," Jackson remembers. "People would dance, and somebody would bake a ham, a pot of beans, or some pies, have plenty to drink and plenty to eat and have music the whole weekend when the weather was good. Now and then someone would pay you a quarter or fifty cents or something, but very seldom you got any money for it. You didn't have anything but a guitar or maybe a banjo, and somebody else would come in with a fiddle or maybe another guitar and would get up in the corner and play right with you.

"You started to play one thing, and if it didn't suit them to dance you'd stop it and start on another one and, if that suited them, that's what they wanted. You sat right there and played that one song all night. When you got tired of playing it, two more people'd move in the corner and go to playing it, and the next bunch would go on the floor and dance. When he would play for maybe a half hour, 45 minutes, two more would get there and another group would come on the floor. Sometimes they'd want another song, but it would be something in that same category."

Jackson's whole family was musical. "My mother played harmonica and accordion," he says. "I can't remember but one song that she played that wasn't a spiritual, and that was 'Put My Little Shoes Away.' My Uncle John played the accordion, and all he'd sing was spirituals, and my dad's sister, Aunt Etta, she played the guitar. Some of the women played guitars just the same as the men. My sister Alice played, and pretty much all my brothers played, fingerpicking style. And my Uncle Charlie, he played the fiddle, he used to play, 'Walk Down, Ladies, Your Cake's All Gone' and something about the Devil's Stairs."

The main musician around the Jackson household was John's father, Suttie Jackson. "He played guitar upside-down, left-handed," Jackson says. "And he picked with four fingers and a thumb, he's the onliest man I ever saw do that. He even picked ukelele like that. He played stuff like 'Comin' 'Round the Mountain, Charming Betsy' and 'The Preacher and the Great Grizzly Bear,' 'Floyd Collins,' 'Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,' and a song went 'It's Gonna Be Rain or Snow when the Cockadoodle Crow.'

"He had a little small guitar with a picture of a cowboy on it with a rope in his hand whirled up, and they said the name of it was a Round-Up. And he had a six-string banjo and a five string banjo, and a four-string ukelele, and a eight-string mandolin. Only thing I would pick up on was the guitar now and then, and the minute he hit that house he knowed if you touched that guitar. He used to fuss, say I always would be running it out of tune. After I learned to play, he didn't mind; I could used it all I want. But my sister already done bought me one then. The first guitar I got, my sister give it to me and she paid 3 dollars and 75 cents for it. She ordered it from Sears and Roebuck, and it was a Harmony."

Jackson could learn little from his father, because of the latter's unorthodox technique. Anyway, he was of a younger generation and interested in the new blues sounds coming into the area. Happy served as an inspiration, and the source of some open tunings, but most of his education came after the family acquired a phonograph.

"It was two furniture dealers came up in the country with horse and wagon," he remembers. "They came into the house one day and had a load of furniture on their wagon and these old record players you wind up by hand. And they come in there, said 'We got some furniture and we got a music box we want to sell.'

"My father told them, said, 'We ain't got no money to buy nothing with.'

"So they left and went back up on the hill and got into some trees and eat their lunch, and when he went back in the hay field to work, they came back down to the house with a record playing on the thing.

"My mother heard it, said 'God-a-mighty, Mr. Hume, what is that?'

"He said 'This is that music box your husband run me away with.'

"She said 'Bring that thing on in here.' So they brought it in and they left two or three records with it. And they come around once a month, every six weeks, and collect whatever we was able to pay them on it. And they would bring a whole lot of records--any kind of record you wanted, they had it. My older sisters was taking in washing and ironing and day work, and they would buy the records. I remember Blind Blake, Lemon Jefferson, Barbecue Bob. Just everybody who ever made a record back then. Frank Stokes, Gus Cannon and the Jug Band. He would come around and my sisters would buy two or three records, and that's how I learned to play, listening to those records.

"I would put a record on the record player and if I couldn't get the guitar in the same tune as the record, I'd trim me a stick, like a pencil, and I'd cut me a rubber band out of an old inner tube that our next-door neighbor had, that had old T-model cars, and I'd wrap it over the stick and slide it down the neck and put it over the other end and would get it the same sound as the record and play right behind the record."

Jackson still plays many of the songs he learned off those records, Blind Blake's "West Coast Blues" and its flip side, "Early Morning Blues," Frank Stoke's "Nobody's Business" and "Take Me Back", or Blind Boy Fuller's "Rattlesnakin' Daddy." The guitar parts have changed somewhat with the years, but he still stays close to the recorded versions, in some cases covering the original breaks note for note. Clearly, he was not approaching this music as a professional musician, but rather as a dedicated amateur. He played to enrich his free hours and amuse his friends and family, and had no urge to become a full-time street corner player like his models. Indeed, when asked if he ever wanted to go on the road, traveling around like the men on the records, he just shakes his head.

"I never thought of it that way, never thought to do any hoboing or nothing like that. Just traveled to friends and neighbors 'round the neighborhood. Sometimes I'd walk like thirty miles on the weekend with a guitar, maybe play for a party or a dance and get back in time to go to work on Monday morning. We didn't have no automobiles. It wasn't hardly any money then, and which if we had money I don't know what you'd've done with it. Wasn't no place to spend it.

"Back in the late '20s and early '30s, I didn't get but a quarter a day; I was about 18 years old 'fore I made a dollar a day. Which I got as much pay as anybody else did, and that's what they was paying. Six days a week, that would've been a dollar and a half a week, and that wasn't bad money. We lived good, we had plenty to eat. 'Cause you could take a quarter to the store and a dozen eggs, and you'd bring home a whole great long sack full of groceries and still have a little change left 'round."

Jackson is openly nostalgic for those days. He remembers gathering walnuts, shucking them, and selling them to the local store for a cent and a half a pound, and foraging for food in the woods and fields. "There's so much good stuff out there to eat, and you wouldn't never find how good it was 'less you know it," he says, reeling off a list of wild fruits and vegetables. Even instruments could be home-made. His father's pennywhistles, for instance, did not cost even their namesake penny.

"He'd take a sappling that wasn't quite as big as your little finger and he would cut it to about six or eight inches long," Jackson says. "Then he'd take a big piece of fencing wire and take a hammer and beat it real rounded on the end and he'd put it in the cook stove and heat it till it get blood red hot. He kept jabbing it in there until he'd burn a hole all the way through it and make it real smooth. Then he'd cut the notches on top of it with his knife and cut a little mouthpiece for it and he'd go around playing."

In this rural environment people played whatever instruments and music came to hand. By Jackson's day the banjo, though originally an African import, had fallen out of favor among younger African Americans in most parts of the country, and would receive its death blow in the '30s with the arrival of the electric guitar. To the people in Jackson's neighborhood, however, it was still a fine, loud instrument that could keep the people's feet tapping at a dance. Jackson says he learned his banjo style pretty on his own, but there were plenty of other players around.

"My father'd fool around with the banjo, but he couldn't play it like some of them fellows," he says. "My aunt married a thoroughbred indian named Jim Clark, and I tell you he could make a banjo sound like a train on the track. He was the first man I ever seen pick a banjo with three fingers and a thumb. He was a much lighter-skinned man than I was, raw-boned, and he wore one big plait of hair and he kept it curled up and wore his hat on it. You'd never know he had it until he come in from work and he'd take it down and comb it and plait it back up and put it back up.

"But I didn't learn nothing from him. How I picked up the banjo was my brother was playing at a dance with the guitar and he got in a fight and he hit somebody with it and broke it up, throwed the rest of it in the river. So we didn't have a guitar for about two years and I used to go to my aunt's and help to work the garden and all and I picked up Uncle Jim's banjo and just kept fooling with it. What little bit I do on the banjo I learned it by fooling with it, by not having the guitar. And I don't know today whether I play a banjo or not."

The fight that lost him his first guitar was typical of the problems Jackson encountered at the dances, and in his early twenties he finally decided that he'd had enough. "In '46, I reckon it was," he says. "About September or October, there was a big house party, and I went to do some of the playing for the dance. It was near down in a little place they call Slate Mills, Virginia, and there must have been 200 people there. I went on in with my guitar and got up in the corner and was playing, and it was about 16 people on the dance floor, square dancing. This fellow come in and set right down in the corner near me there. I knew him, but I didn't know him very well, and I didn't pay no mind to him. So when I happened to look around at him, the biggest drops of water you ever saw was running out of his eyes. He was crying. And all at once he spoke up and told me, says 'You either play that box or put it down.'

"I said 'Noakes,' said 'I play some, you play some, and everybody else, and we're all here to have a good time.'

"He had a pair of these old striped cover-alls on and a great big pair of work shoes with iron on his toe, with them big nails on the bottom. And he raised his feet up and stomped against the floor and sparks flew up from neath his feet, and he told me, said 'God damn you, I told you to either play that box or put it down.' And he leaped up outta the chair to get me and three or four other fellows was there was my friends that knew me, they grabbed him and got him quieted down and got into a tussle with him.

"They took him out and about ten minutes he came back and set down again. And he set there and I looked around at him, he was crying again, and he told me, he said 'You stole my guitar and I'm gonna have to kill you.' He had some kind of old switch blade knife in his hand and he called me a real nasty name and he jumped up to stab me with the knife and these other boys grabbed him again. And that's what started the fight.

"Man, you never saw such a fight in all the days of your life. They tore the man's furniture up, they knocked the windows out of the house. I hadn't long been married then and I grabbed my wife by one hand, had the guitar in the other one. We started out the back door and were going down the back steps, somebody cut loose with a jammin (gallon?) jug and it came right over our heads and hit a locust tree in front of us, busted all to pieces.

"We kept running, trying to make it till the car and by the time I got almost to the bottom of the steps I heard another terrible crash and I looked, somebody hit this man over the head with part of a table leg. And he come down them steps rolling, but we jumped off the steps out of the way and he hit the ground, he got on his feet and I bet you a rabbit couldn't have caught him, he was running so fast. 'Bout that time we got to the car and I got that started and I got out of there. And I told my wife that night and I said to myself, 'If I get out of here alive, I'll never play no more.' And that's what stopped me from playing. I quit playing in '46, and I never touched a guitar no more till '64."

Even without the fight, the music that Jackson liked to play was falling out of fashion. By the mid-1940s, country blues and hoedowns were being replaced by the big city jump blues sound of bands like the Count Basie Orchestra and Louis Jordan's Tympany Five. Juke boxes brought recorded dance music to even the most rural areas and, by listening to the radio, dancers could keep up with the latest trends. Where their parents had danced to old-time hoedowns, Jackson's contemporaries began to do the drag, the slow, sexy dance of the city.

Roads had improved as well, and bands could come out to play one night stands in the rural juke joints. "This was about '46, just after the war quit and everybody was coming home," Jackson says. "It was a little place they called the Pine Knot Inn, about five miles out of Little Washington, a beer joint. They had a ball diamond, and Radio Dick used to come up there in a great big Greyhound bus and bring a ball team they called the Brown Bombers. They would play like a little town called Madison and the next time they would play a place they call Fredericksburg, and after the ball game they would have a dance.

"Radio Dick had about a five piece band, with horns and a guitar and drums, and I can remember one song that they used to do that they danced a lot to was 'Diggin' My Potatoes' and 'Get Out the Can, Here Come the Garbage Man.' Man, you never saw such dancing like they was doing. It wasn't no square dance. He'd have the woman swinging, and she would cross his legs and he would roll her over his hips, and she'd come around the side like you ain't never saw in your life. They called it the drag."

While Jackson enjoys the memory of Radio Dick, the ball games, and the dances, he remembers it as the end of his own musical era. "After this Pine Knot Inn business got started, of course, some of the older heads died out, and the others had gotten too old," he says. "They didn't go out nowhere, and people just quit having square dances, and there wasn't no command for my kind of music."

Even at the best of times, music had only been a sideline for Jackson. He says that quitting playing was hard, as hard as quitting cigarettes, but he had plenty to keep him busy. Even today, at 70, he keeps his day job as a grave digger, and in his prime he kept a schedule that would have killed anyone else. "I had a full-time job as a caretaker and a chauffeur," he says. "And in the evenings when I got off from work I would go dig a grave if I had one to dig. If I didn't, I would mow grass until dark, or I'd take my truck and haul trash, and then I would go wash dishes at the men's club and then go up clean up the office until one or two o'clock. I used to work almost 24 hours around the clock."

Meanwhile he and his wife raised seven children, and it was through the children that he finally began to play again in 1964. "It was three or four kids was at the house, playing in the yard with my kids," he says. "They got tired of playing ball and they wanted to do this dance that Elvis Presley started. So the kids asked me to get the guitar out so they could do a hula dance, and I got it out and was trying to play 'Walk Right In, Let Your Sweet Mind Roll On.' The mailman delivered some mail to the house and heard me doing it and he wouldn't leave me alone. Said he'd been trying to play the song and couldn't play it, and wanted to know would I learn him how to play it." ("Walk Right In," a 1929 record by Cannon's Jug Stompers, had recently been a hit for the Rooftop Singers, an early folk revival group.)

"I told him, 'I ain't picked or played the fool with no guitar since '46.'

"He said, 'That sounds good to me.' Said 'I got a part time job pumping gas up at this Amoco station; you bring your guitar and we can get in the back room when I ain't got no gas to pump and you can learn me to play it.'

"Well, he just kept on at me, so I got the guitar at night and went up there. We was in the back room and I was trying to learn him to play it, and this man drove in for gas. And instead of him getting his gas, he come running in the back of the station--I don't know how he seen us in there--and wanted to know what I was playing.

"I told him, said 'I ain't playing nothing.'

"He said, 'You must play something, you got a guitar.'

"So he kept on asking, and I played him Mississippi John Hurt's 'Candyman.' He asked me what else I played, and I told him 'Nothing.' And he kept asking, and I played him a Blind Boy Fuller song. And then he wanted to know where I lived and I told him 'Just two blocks down to that little house there.'

"When I come in from work, he was sitting on my porch. I played him a whole bunch of stuff, and before he left, he asked me how I'd like to go in town and meet the man wrote 'Candyman.'

"I said 'That man ain't living now, he's pushing up tulips.'

"Said, 'Oh, no he isn't. He's Mississippi John Hurt and he's playing in Georgetown at the Ontario Place.' So he said, 'You be ready, I'm going to come over here Friday night, I'm going to take you over to meet him.'

"So when, sure enough, Friday night come, he come by. I wasn't ready, and he said, 'Look,' says 'I ain't fooling. Mississippi John Hurt's in town.'

"So I got ready and went over there and I seen this little man sitting there, but I still didn't believe it was him. But the minute he played 'Candyman,' I knowed he was the man. So I got to meet Mississippi John Hurt that night, 'Lizabeth Cotton, Skip James, and then after the concert they had a party, so I went over there and we celebrated till about two or three o'clock in the morning.

"Next weekend, it was another bluesman came in named Mance Lipscomb, so they took me over to meet Mance Lipscomb and Son House. They asked me would I play two songs on the stage and I did and this man jumped up out of the audience and said 'I want to make a record by that man.' It was the Arhoolie record company, and he came out the next day at 11 o'clock; he started me playing and I played till 11 that night, and played ninety songs. And in 1965, April to May, the record came out and I've been traveling ever since."

Jackson recorded three albums for Arhoolie, then two for Rounder. (The only thing currently available is Arhoolie CD 378- "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down," which contains songs drawn from the three LPs, and two Rounder cassettes, Deep in the Bottom C-2032and Step it Up and Go C-2019.) He has toured all over the world and become one of the most popular of country blues performers, with an ebulliant stage style that includes jokes and tall tales along with his wide range of musical material. Unlike many older blues performers, who often seemed uncomfortable and out of their element performing at festivals or clubs packed with white, urban, middle-class audiences, Jackson takes it all in his stride. He cheerfully chats with fans, his conversation laced with dry country wit. When, in Corning, a young woman asks him why he has two guitars on stage, he replies "Usually I play one with my hands and one with my feet, but today I forgot to bring my strap." Jackson's face shows no sign that he is joking, and his questioner nods as if this explanation made perfect sense.

At home, he still occasionally plays with his brother in Rappahannock, who plays the autoharp, and with his children. "I have one son, James, that used to play with me on stage sometimes," he says. "But if he has to go somewhere that he has to stay over night, he don't like to go. He plays everything: rap music, rock, whatever you name it. I had the other one that played, he passed away, he got that poison in Vietnam, it was Agent Orange and then the doctor said it was cancer, but that's what happened. And My daughter used to play the piano, but she don't fool with that any more. I got one son that blows a real nice harmonica, and my other son he's gotten into spirituals. You can start him off on a blues and I guarantee you 'fore you end it he'll be playing 'Just a Closer Walk With Thee' or 'Circle Be Unbroken' or something. And the next one, he picks just like I do, but he don't like to play for anybody, just plays for his own 'muse. I got six grandkids and I got one little grand-daughter has been with me ever since she was three days old and she's been trying to work on the piano and guitar, but she got wrapped up in going to school and she sort of put the guitar down and the piano too."

None of his children show any inclination to carry on Jackson's performing, but he says that doesn't bother him. As far as he can see, the tradition is still very much alive. "It's so many good young blues players, black and white," he says. "They can play as good as me or anybody else, and there's nothing wrong with them doing it." After all, if there is one thing he has learned in his travels, it is that his old-time blues and hoe-downs can cross all ethnic and cultural barriers. "When I go to Europe, or maybe to south America, I can't speak the language, but the minute I touch that guitar everybody understands it," he says. "I don't have to do any more than that right there. I think music criss-crosses. It don't buy no air fare, but it gets there."

(Note: As John Jackson is only now beginning to read and write, all proper names that couldn't be checked have been spelled as they sound.)

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"A traditional Southern gospel group, any one that I've ever heard, generates a kind of energy that you just don't get anywhere else. Like once we were in Ohio and we were performing on a program with several other groups, magnificent groups. They sang a cappella, but they didn't sing the traditional stuff, and one guy says to us, he says, 'You know, I know we sound good, but there's just something about you guys. There's a certain excitement that seems to follow you wherever you go.' And that excitement is the emotion and the power and strength that's put into Southern gospel."

The speaker is James Alex Taylor, leader of the Birmingham Sunlights. The Sunlights consist of Taylor on lead tenor, his brothers Steve and Barry on baritone and bass, Wayne Williams on second tenor, and Reginald "Ricky" Speights on baritone. They are five men with a mission: to bring the glorious sound of old-time quartet gospel to a modern audience. Today they are in Boston, doing radio promotion for a "Juke Joints and Jubilee" tour sponsored by the National Council for the Traditional Arts, which features them along with the Holmes Brothers, blues singer John Dee Holeman, and Fontella Bass.

The New England climate is taking its toll, keeping several group members battling colds and sore throats, and the non-stop touring schedule has everyone feeling exhausted and a bit out of sorts. As soon as they have finished the radio spot, the singers sprawl on couches and chairs, trying to catch a little sleep before driving to their next concert date in Lowell. Taylor is clearly tired as well, but seems only too happy to talk about the music he loves.

In the last decade, the Sunlights have become roving ambassadors for the classic quartet sound. Along with tours for the Arts Council they have appeared in concerts and festivals all over the United States, and in 1989 made a State Department-sponsored tour of Southern Africa, visiting Malawi, Botswana, Mozambique, Lesotho, and Swaziland. Their debut CD, For Old Time's Sake on Flying Fish Records, received well-deserved critical raves and was profiled on Public Radio's "All Things Considered." Wherever they go, the Sunlights bring a combination of consummate artistry and a deep love of the roots and history of black gospel song.

"We've been singing a cappella all our lives," Taylor explains. "Many of our songs are songs we grew up with. Like 'The Southland Singing' [on the Flying Fish album], I remember hearing that before I even started school. It was the Golden Gate Quartet, and one of the radio programs would open up with it every morning. It's heart-moving music, you know? There's music that makes you pat your feet, music that makes you clap your hands, and then there's music that makes your heart move. The power of that old Southern gospel makes your heart move, which controls everything else--your feet, your hands, your lips, everything."

Taylor grew up singing in the choir of the Powderley Church of Christ in his native Birmingham, and received further training at Miles College in Fairfield, Alabama. After winning a state-wide talent contest in 1970, he moved out into the secular world, leading a band that toured with soul greats like Isaac Hayes, Al Green, and Stevie Wonder. He released one single, "Don't Look at Me that Way" on Bang Records, before becoming disillusioned with the pop music business in the late '70s.

Asked what brought him back to gospel, Taylor says he never really left. "Even when I was singing rhythm and blues, on Sunday you could catch me in church singing gospel. 'Walk Around Heaven' was my favorite. Everybody used to love to hear me sing that. So for a while I chased that one record, playing different club dates with my band, and we did pretty good. But after no other record was released I got a contract release from Bang and I went into gospel. At first I was with another group, then I broke off with that group and formed the Sunlights in 1978."

Though they always sang a cappella, the Sunlights did not start off concentrating on a traditional sound. "We got into that by accident," he remembers. "My mother asked me, said 'James, I want you to do this song that my great uncle used to do.' We couldn't find that song, nobody that knew it all the way through. It went 'I do not know if he will welcome me there,' but that's all we knew. So I told her to choose another and she said 'It's Gonna Rain.'

"Now, I'd heard 'It's Gonna Rain' since I was a kid, so we went to one of the older groups, the Sterling Jubilees, in Birmingham, and asked them to teach us that song. It turned out it was one of the very first songs that they learned as an a cappella gospel group, over 68 years ago. So they taught it to us and everybody loved it. After we saw that song was so popular, we just started to do more of them and we ended up singing traditional Southern gospel."

Of course, the choice was not simply based on the public response. Taylor says that when they started concentrating on a traditional sound, they found that it was like coming home. "That music gives me a feeling that no other music does," Taylor says. "The sound is so rich. The harmonies are rich, the feeling is rich. And its something that everyone in the group likes and that we were brought up with."

Indeed, the Taylors were carrying on a family tradition. Their father, Everett Taylor, sang with Birmingham's Four Blue Eagles in the 1930s and '40s, and when his sons decided to follow the traditional road they found mentors all around them. Local veterans like the Shelby County Big Four, the Fairfield Four, and the Four Eagles were all willing and eager to teach them the traditional styles. Taylor says that, far from being surprised, the older singers found the Sunlights' return to their roots a normal and logical step. "Those guys, some of them have been knowing us since the day we were born" he says. "So when they found out that we were singing traditional Southern gospel, they were just like 'Well, we knew it was just a matter of time.' That kind of attitude. And they were always happy to help us along."

With the encouragement and aid of the older singers and Taylor's own research in the field, the Sunlights have developed a repertoire that ranges across the whole field of traditional quartet singing. "Some of the arrangements we do are over a hundred years old," Taylor says. "We do old arrangements, we have originals that we have written in the traditional style, and we do some of the later stuff like the Soul Stirrers. We get the arrangements from different places, different groups, then we'll add here, subtract there, and come up with a specific style."

Taylor does most of the arrangements himself, with input from the rest of the group. "Everybody has their different ideas, and sometimes we use them," he says. "Sometimes we don't, and sometimes I have to change my ideas because they don't fit. Basically we try to handle everything democratically, but I am the musical director and if it don't work I'll change it."

However the arrangements develop, Taylor says that they always hew close to the original melody. "We don't ever want to change the melody, 'cause that's the life's blood of the song," he explains. "Everything else is built around that and once you've got that taken care of everything else is relatively easy. Most of the time, all I have to do is sing the melody and the other guys pick up their parts instantly. After fourteen years, you know, you learn a little bit." After they have that basic arrangement, Taylor says, it's just a matter of doing a little fine tuning. "Like we may want to change an ending, or add an eighth note or a sixteenth note at a specific part in the song, to give it a different flavor at that point. But it's not like I have to write the parts out. Everything is done from the ear, the heart and the soul."

On stage, the Sunlights use all three to perfection. Their love for the music comes through in every note and the harmonies are impeccable, the group forming a swinging, perfectly cohesive unit. Taylor and Wayne Williams handle the majority of the leads, Taylor as the group's sweet singer and Williams as the hard shouter, with the other members filling in the cracks. However, everyone gets his turn. Ricky Speights jumps from baritone to a pure, lovely falsetto and even the generally self-effacing Steve Taylor takes his moment in the spotlight. Barry Taylor, introduced as "Poppa Pump," is usually needed down at the bottom, keeping the bass line popping, but one of the high points of their show is when he steps to the center mike to sing a booming lead on "Roll, Jordan."

According to Taylor, the Sunlights decided from the beginning that they wanted to be as democratic as possible, with no members relegated to a purely back-up role. "When we formed the group, we didn't want a lead singer per se," he says. "We said if you didn't want to be a song leader in the group, then you were in the wrong group. If a man's got a song that he wants to lead, we encourage him, and most of the time everybody brings his own songs. Or I'll hear a song and I'll say 'Steve could really do this.' Or Barry. And we'll do it that way.

"Then sometimes we switch around. Like I gave up 'Gospel Train,' a song I was leading, to Wayne. I said 'I think you might do this a little bit better, it sounds more like your stuff. So I'd like you to lead it, if you'll be so kind.' He said 'Yeh, I'll give it a try,' and he led it and it sounded good. I took the lead tenor, and it humalacked."

Seeing that his last word has baffled the interviewer, Taylor is happy to explain. "It was humalackin'. Humalackin' is a term used by the older guys. When you're really singing and the singing is pleasing to your heart and pleasing to the hearts of everyone else, then you're humalackin'. It makes your feet move, your body move, your heart pump, and your hands clap. On this tour, I've been teaching that word to a lot of people."

The teaching is important to Taylor. In concert, he often takes time to explain the roots and relationships of the songs. "It's Gonna Rain," the song which closes each show, is his educational masterpiece, a spectacular fusion of classic gospel and modern rap that points up the links between the oldest African-American traditions and the hottest street sounds. "I heard a rap singer on television say 'If the martians came to earth today, they'd want to hear rap, because they'd want to hear something new,'" Taylor says, shaking his head. "I said to myself, 'If that brother only knew.' Because rap isn't new, it's older than anything else.

"'It's Gonna Rain' is an old rap song, well over 180 years old," he continues. "Rap is one of the very first forms of gospel quartet singing, and it's just taken on a different form today. Most of the rappers now are from the North, and they use what is called perfect diction or the king's English, but the guys from the old days they were from down South--they used the traditional diction what was popular back then, what some people call black English. So what I do is I sing the first verse in the old traditional rap, then I do the second verse in the new 1990s rap. That makes the connection quite well. Because we need to educate the people and that's one of the tools we can use. And we find that most people are very receptive when we give them information about the different styles of music."

Taylor says the Sunlights found some of their most receptive audiences when they were in Africa. What is more, he clearly feels that on that tour the group learned as much as they taught. "The first thing when we got off the plane in Malawi, our first stop, was they opened their arms and said 'My brothers, welcome to the land of your forefathers,'" he says, smiling at the memory. "They took us around and showed us different places, different people, and different musics, and once I got in there I began to see exactly why our music sounds the way that it does.

"It was like finding out who you really were. Because I've been taught Negro spiritual songs all my life, as long as I can remember, and when I got to Southern Africa I discovered that their traditional songs are just like our spirituals, just a different language or a different religion, but the style was the same. So when you start tracing the roots of Southern gospel, you have to take it back to Negro spirituals, and from there all the way back to Africa. Cause that's actually where it started.

"When we got there and began to see exactly why our music sounds the way it does, I had to tell them, 'What you're about to hear is your music, transformed over a period of four hundred years.' And they were very receptive every place we went. It was very interesting. Every country was so different and so unique and so beautiful. And at the concerts, sometimes guys would come up and want to sing, and we'd step down the aisle and sing together. It was just amazing."

At their New England shows, the audiences are enthusiastic but more restrained. Taylor says the relatively subdued reaction is quite common when the Sunlights are singing for largely white, non-gospel audiences, and he has learned to take it in stride. "Sometimes you get to places where they enjoy you tremendously, but they're tensed up a little bit, they're a bit conservative," he says. "When that happens, we just have to work a little harder. And for the most part, we can involve them and get them to do their share. In a couple of places on this tour, we've had standing ovations before we even finished our set."

Now, the tour is winding down and the Sunlights are looking forward to getting off the road, back to their families and businesses. And back to singing where they started out, in the churches around Birmingham. "You don't have too many groups doing this music anymore, so we stay relatively busy," Taylor says. "There are a lot of older members of the church and these are songs they can identify with. But you know, the young people like it too, because there is a feeling that is generated in this kind of music that you can't find anywhere else, a feeling that old people and young people can understand."

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By Elijah Wald (published in Sing Out! 1993)

Tarika Sammy are a sound man's nightmare. Like a Malagasy New Lost City Ramblers, they change and rotate instruments constantly. All the instruments are acoustic and the range of tone and timbre is extreme, from guitar to concertina to a two-sided box zither. And Tarika Sammy are not satisfied with a laid-back, folksy sound. As the band runs through its sound check at Johnny D's Uptown Lounge in Somerville, Massachusetts, lead vocalist Hanitrarivo Rasoanaivo, known as Hanitra, is singing to the sound man that the volume needs to come up. "We need it really loud, like heavy metal," she sings, dancing in time, her finger jabbing towards the ceiling. "Otherwise the energy is gone out the window like the wind."

Tarika Sammy are part of a new wave of music from Madagascar, a flood of varied and beautiful styles and fusions that incorporate Malagasy traditions, outside influences, and individual inspiration. The scene on stage is symbolic of the new approach. Samoela Andriamalalaharijaona, or Sammy, and his cousin Solomon Ratianarinaivo, or Tiana, are playing traditional instruments made from hand-carved wooden boxes, gourds, and pieces of bamboo. Beside them, Hanitra and her sister Tina Norosoa Raharimalala, or Noro, dance in skin-tight neon stretch pants and t-shirts. Only their tall, colorfully-embroidered hats carry a whiff of island exotica, and they bought the hats yesterday in Northampton.

"Before I came in the group, Sammy tried very hard to wear the traditional clothes," Hanitra explains. "He would sit and play his valiha and people would come from abroad and say, 'Oh, yes, a traditional musician.' But the truth is we're dynamic, young, very modern--we've been studying at the university, we follow fashion. We don't use modern instruments, but our music is modern because we play it in the 20th century. We take the attitude of people now, people like rock and roll, heavy metal. I always tell my sound guy, saying 'Make us sound loud and punchy,' because that's what it is. We stand up, we dance. It's not the folky traditional musicians who just play classical things and sit around."

Though Tarika Sammy means "Sammy's Group," Hanitra is the person responsible for the group's current line-up and much of their musical approach. She writes lyrics, arranges vocal harmonies, directs the stage show, and even designs the costumes with the help of her older sister. The group's only fluent English-speaker, she is also their spokesperson and a fervent crusader for traditional Malagasy culture. She has written a Malagasy language instruction book, and can hold forth volubly on the island's history and traditions.

Madagascar lies in the Indian Ocean, 250 miles off the East Coast of Africa. Separated from the mainland some 160 million years ago, it was not settled by humans until the 7th century and its culture and language blend traditions from at least three continents. Looking at Tarika Sammy, one would guess that they were from somewhere in Polynesia. Photos of other Malagasy musicians suggest faces from Central Africa or the Middle East. "There are so many people who've been passing through Madagascar," Hanitra explains. "Starting from the Arab settlers, the Indonesian, Portuguese, then some African slaves have been brought and taken both to and from Brazil, then French people came and colonized us, then the Welsh missionaries came and translated our words into writing. Our language has been discussed as being based on Malay-Polynesian languages, and maybe Bantu from Africa too, and from Indonesia. So many things are going on in it."

Madagascar has between 18 and 21 tribes or ethnic groups, all of whom speak dialects of Malagasy. (Maybe the Welsh are to blame, but Malagasy orthography is pretty strange. The final y's seem to be silent, as are plenty of other vowels. Hanitra's name, for example, sounds more or less like "Hant," Tiana's like "Teen.") While the tribes can all understand one another, and there is quite a bit of cultural overlap, each has its own musical style and even its own instruments.

"Each tribe would concentrate on its particular instrument," Hanitra says. "For example, we are from the Merina tribe, and therefore we should concentrate on the valiha. Now, what we've done is to bridge these boundaries between tribes. We've taken all the instruments, which is traditional instruments, and we've taken all the rhythms, which is traditional rhythms from wherever Madagascar started, and we've mixed it all together.

"Now, you must understand, it's not like a sampler of from all the ethnies; it's a combination of them all. In other words, if you take a song, say "Rabeza" for instance: "Rabeza" is played on a jejy voatavo, which is an instrument from the Betvalihu [note to the editor: please try to get the right spelling] tribe, but the rhythm is from the Sakalava tribe, and the singing is the harmony from our tribe. So the three combined together gives our music. This is why I call our music semi-traditional, because there's no other group in Madagascar who's ever done this. There's no group who's gonna come up with all the different tribes' instruments and play it all."

If Tarika Sammy's contemporary blend and flash comes from Hanitra, it's musical foundation is Sammy's instrumental virtuosity. As he explained, speaking in French, he started off playing flute, then learned guitar and all the other instruments in Madagascar. He was not able to travel and see all the regional styles in their native locale, but since he lived in the capital he met musicians at national festivals and was able to trade licks and ideas. If one mentions any well-known Malagasy musician, Sammy can demonstrate their playing style and explain the intricacies of their music. Though he talks quietly and without any suggestion of self-promotion, he is confident that he is the only musician in Madagascar who can truly play all the styles and instruments. "It's a gift," he says. "I can just pick up any instrument and play it. I can play with anyone, jazz musicians, rock musicians, whatever." Asked about the Malagasy guitar virtuoso D'Gary, he instantly took his guitar, re-tuned it, and gave a quick demonstration of D'Gary's style. When someone compared his playing to that of the West African griots, he used his valiha to give a perfect imitation of the kora style of Demba Konte, whom he met in London.

Like most traditional Malagasy musicians, Sammy also makes his own instruments, though recently he has started to have some made to his specifications by European luthiers. Except for the guitar, all the group's instruments are unique to the island. The valiha is a tubular stalk of bamboo with strings running lengthwise all around it, played with one hand on either side of the tube. Sammy says that traditionally valiha makers used strings peeled from the inside of the bamboo tube, and later unwound bicycle break cables and the copper wire coils from electrical motors, but now he uses regular guitar or piano strings. His valiha is tuned to a diatonic scale, but he says that traditional players all have their own tunings. Asked if this means that musicians can only play their own valihas, he smilingly says "I can play the others', but they usually cannot play mine."

For the rest of the instruments: The marovany is a flat wooden box with a zither-like arrangement of strings on both sides. The kabosy is like a baritone ukelele, except that the frets are irregular, some only extending under two strings. The lokanga bara is a three-string fiddle. The jejy voatavo has a wooden neck and a gourd resonator, and Sammy's is his own invention; he has changed the shape of the neck, added frets and put an extra set of strings on the side, giving himself two surfaces which he plays simultaneously. Most of the instruments are diatonic, so the group carries several in different tunings, and the variety of shapes, woods, and carving styles is fascinating.

Sammy formed the first incarnation of Tarika Sammy in 1980 with Tiana, who was originally a keyboard player, and a shifting group of friends. "He kept having the different members of the group changing, but Tiana and Sammy were always there," Hanitra remembers. "Ever since 1980 he was existing, but not really seen, not really understood. People did not really care about it that much, because for us this music is just part of life. So what? It's not novelty. So he never did shows or anything like that. But despite all that, when people from the West went to Madagascar who were interested in Malagasy music, they found it interesting to see all these instruments that he was playing. So he always got one or two tracks in different compilations."

The first recording was in 1986, two tracks of an anthology of Malagasy popular music on the English Globestyle label. Next came two cuts on Shanachie Records' critically acclaimed A World Out of Time, which featured Malagasy bands playing with Westerners Henry Kaiser and David Lindley. If the '86 recording gave Sammy the strength to keep going, Hanitra says that by the time Kaiser and Lindley arrived in 1991 he was thoroughly discouraged. "Just when he was doing that recording, Sammy came up to me and said 'I'm Giving up. I'm not going to do this any more.' I said 'Why is this?' He said 'I can't earn my living, I can't have any money. Nobody pays serious attention.'

"I was very sad," she continues. "I was a translator then and worked at the consulate of Madagascar in London, and I said 'No, I'm going to give that up. I'm going to help you doing this and we're gonna change the whole attitude of this traditional music; I'm going to make it possible so that people will take us seriously.' My sister worked in the post office and I said 'Give that up and come with me.'

Their arrival changed the whole flavor of the group. "What we are doing now is very, very different," Hanitra says. "In fact, the group could have been called Tarika Hanitra, but I respect man and I respect Sammy, so I keep the name like that." Hanitra lives in England, and the new group's debut album, Fanafody, was recorded there with help from John Kirkpatrick, Ian Anderson, and two of the 3 Mustaphas 3. It features strong, four-part harmonies and rippling, dancing string lines, as well as Sammy's lovely flute playing. The songs are immensely varied, from ethereal, slightly Asian melodies to bouncy dance numbers.

The English players blend in nicely, adding occasional accordion or guitar, or the Mustaphas' Afro-pop bass and drums under the more up-beat numbers. "I didn't want the whole idea of Tarika Sammy to change completely, to become something like an electrified group, rather than us," Hanitra says. "But I am happy with the result, because it was a very light touch. When we play now, we can be just us four doing the whole record, but that was like an experience. In the beginning, the rhythm section didn't have an idea what Malagasy music was all about. Even when to count, which is number one beat, because we count in different manners. It was nice, though, because they were really great musicians, and I think it's a very good balance and it's just perfect to introduce us to this world."

Most of the songs on Fanafody are written or arranged by Sammy, but the group's newer songs tend to come from Hanitra. As she explains: "When that was done, I just wanted to preserve all the music that Sammy has written, with everything slightly rearranged from the way he did it before. But the things we're doing on stage now is basically all either written by me and I ask him to put the music, or rearranged by me. Basically, how we create our music is I will write a song, I will have a tune in my mind, and then I will sing it and keep it on a tape and I will say to Sammy, 'OK, let's try the valiha on this' or 'Let's try marovany,' and he will do something and then we will combine us four and see how it works."

Although Hanitra and Noro had never considered a career in music, they have sung together since childhood. "We belong to a singing family, a harmony-singing family," Hanitra says. "We never played accompanied with instruments, but very strong vocal harmonies. My mom and dad sang when they met each other and we sing every day in our life. Sometimes it's songs like what was my grandfathers song; sometimes it's something that we hear on the radio, then we repeat it, but we repeat it with harmonies. Mom and dad would sing, and my brother would follow them and then my sister and then me and Noro, and each one of us cannot stand singing without finding a different harmony. So there are six of us and there are six harmonies. We've performed for traditional ceremonies, wedding ceremonies, circumcision ceremonies. Any ceremonies whatsoever, people always call my family to sing."

Nonetheless, the idea of becoming professional musicians was completely foreign. "When we said 'Mom and dad, we're gonna become a musician' they just flipped," she recalls. "We said 'You know, we can be paid by doing this abroad,' and they wouldn't believe it. They said 'I don't understand that. How come do these people would like to pay for you to entertain them? How come can't they just stand up and dance for themselves, and entertain themselves?'"

Hanitra leans forward. "Do you understand? They are not understanding of the concept of music as something to be paid for and to be played in a place like this, with a special microphone. It does not exist in Madagascar. There is not even one concert hall. It is not the same concept here and in Europe and in Madagascar, because music is like part of our life rather than something separate. Nobody has ever earned their living by playing music in Madagascar. We are the first ones."

While most African music is played and sung by non-professionals, in many areas there are also musicians and musical families who play sophisticated, "classical" styles developed for the royal courts. Hanitra says that Madagascar is an exception. "There was a king, and there were musicians who played for him, but not really like professionals. They were good singers and they were invited by the kings to be there and probably yes, because they have been given their food you can call it a kind of profession, but the music was not special. The musicians play whatever they play and then the king says 'OK, I have a piano, you should now start playing the piano and sing around that,' and so that's what's happening afterwards. Still these days there's a lot of harmony singing around the piano in Madagascar."

While there may have been no full-time musicians, certain players became known for their musical abilities and respected as masters of their instruments. Hanitra says that a special moment of Tarika Sammy's American tour came in Seattle, where they appeared on a program with Sylvestre Randafysan, a valiha master now living in the U.S. "He is a famous player, an older musician," she says. " He is of the same tribe as us, and he is a traditional player, he doesn't play anything but valiha. I greatly respect him, and he was there opening our gig. So when we were going to play we prayed, said God, would he like us or would he not? Because there's only two answers. He would hate us, because what are we doing? Something totally different, it's so modern, and we are playing somebody else's instruments, different tribes' instruments. Or, he's gonna like us.

"So he opened for us. He did what he did and it was beautiful, people really liked it. Then, when we went up and played, after that he came up to us and said, 'My God, I've never seen anybody like you.' I said 'What do you mean?' He said 'You are extra good, and I wish you good luck.' He was ever so appreciative and I couldn't believe it. So we said 'Why do you like us so much?' And he said, 'It's the energy and the dynamism, the charisma. It sounds totally different, but it sounds so good.' He was very happy, because he had these students coming to the hall to see and he could prove to them that there's so many things going on in Madagascar."

Indeed, Madagascar seems to be going through several centuries of musical evolution in a decade. "Madagascar's been isolated for a long, long time and it's only been opened up to the rest of the world for maybe five years or so," Hanitra says. "We hear radio, but only Radio Malagasy, which speaks for only twelve hours and nothing but Malagasy music. People in the coastal area, they can get the wave of Mozambique every now and then during a certain time of night, and these are the guys who will play you real African rhythms. They can do it, because they listen to the radio. We in the center island, no, whatsoever.

"Right now, though, there's so many things coming up all together at the same time, because we've opened up to everybody--South Africa, America, Europeans, everything. So it comes: jazz, pop, heavy metal, reggae, whatever, and everybody picks whatever they want to pick. It is now a very hard time for Tarika Sammy to struggle out and just keep on playing traditional music. But yet it worked. Suddenly, people out here was interested more in the traditional music than in the electric equipment. Now people like Rossy, a pop star with all his electric equipments, changed to traditional music, because of us. That is my big pride. And it's not only him. There are others playing like heavy metal, like variete Francaise (sp?), and these people actually come to us and say to Sammy 'Where do you get these instruments? What's that song?'

"So we are winning now, we are really doing very well compared to the others. And with all the other musicians in Madagascar, there are so many great musicians, that really I'm impressed with my group. But this is what we do, this is what Sammy does. If this doesn't work, we will give up, because we can't do anything else. I can't change and become a saxophone player, or blues player. Whereas in other groups, in Rossy group for instance, maybe he can change and become something like an African musician, play guitar like a Zairean."

To the non-Malagasy listener, Tarika Sammy's music seems to have a strong African influence, suggesting Kenyan guitar styles and South African vocal harmonies. Hanitra, however, views "African music" as something completely foreign and different. "Our music is not at all African, except one song that we've just invented very recently," she says. "When people ask 'Are you Africans?' we don't know really the answer. Especially the Merina tribe says we are not. We don't really like being called Africans. We don't see the similarities. We look at ourselves and we don't look like them, and we don't think like them, so how come are we Africans? It's a land that was once upon a time part of Africa, but we were not born till the 1960s. We are totally different people.

"But yes, on the other hand, there are people now who have never heard African musicians and who have never been to Africa, who play something slightly African. We've created this one song, one song just to make people even more confused, and to show people how many varieties we have in Madagascar. I was walking around in the southern part of Madagascar, and there is these two little boys, one has a small kabosy and he plays with very nice rhythm. And I thought 'How come? Where did he get it from?' I could not answer. So that is too a kind of music which we have there and every time we do that song people say 'Ah, that makes it clear. Yes, you are Africans.' And we don't know, we are not sure of it, but yes, maybe we are."

Meanwhile, Hanitra is amused by all the comparisons. "I have been amazed at all the names people have been giving us," she says. "They have called us Tahitian, they have called us like the Voix de Bulgares. They all try to relate us to something. They say 'Oh, you sound very much like the Zulus,' which I don't think we sound like whatsoever, but they say so anyway. I've collected all the names now, because it's so fascinating."

The one connection that she has found striking is perhaps the strangest of all. "There is a harmony in Hawaiian music, which I didn't know until I came here and they made me listen, and I said 'God, our ancestors must have been Hawaiian too.' And right at this moment, nobody knows where do we really come from, all the Malagasy, so maybe there has been some Hawaiian people too."

Wherever Malagasy music may have come from, Hanitra is clearly very happy with where it and Tarika Sammy are going. While other countries have seen their local musics crushed under the juggernaut of Western pop, Malagasy music seems to be flourishing in the light of world attention. "It's like a big pride," she says. "As far as we're concerned, we've succeeded in what I wanted to do, which is to keep this traditional music going on. And I didn't want Sammy to give up, I wanted to help him a lot. That's number one thing. So I'm happy he's happy now. Number two, I wanted to show to the rest of the world what real Malagasy music is all about. And third, I wanted to teach the Malagasy people that traditional things are good, so keep on to them. Which is now happening, and which makes me really happy. Even if we give up now, I'm happy, because people back home are now starting to do it."

And, for the moment, Hanitra has no intention of giving up. "I can say now, because of the money we get here we can just go home and live in the beach with swimming pool and all the nice life, because we've got a lot of money in the Malagasy standard of living. But no, I love it. After five years of doing this, or ten years, I don't know. We're used to a sort of low pace of life in Madagascar, no rush kind of life, so this rhythm could probably put my friends off after a while, they will probably say, 'No, I don't want to do a concert every night.' But then again, I have to admit that all the family are very happy with the money that we take back home, so there is no complaints. So it's a good thing, and maybe we're gonna do it for the rest of our lives."

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