Deep Roots

Okay, so Corey Harris isn't the easiest guy to pin down. Never mind that an attempt at an 8:00 a.m. phone interview -- one that was admittedly scheduled unreasonably early by musician standards -- was circumvented with a message left on his answering machine. "I'm not a morning person," he says later. "It was also my day off.... Me and my wife were buying rocks so we could do a little landscaping around the house."

No problem there, since the phoner was postponed until the evening. Musically, however, Harris is somewhat less precise. Although the singer/guitarist may have once been known as a student of the blues, his 2002 album (first for current label Rounder Records), Downhome Sophisticate, provided a daring mix of folk, electronica, hip-hop, rock, and R&B, revealing him as an artist who defies being pigeonholed. His most recent effort, 2003's Mississippi to Mali, proved to be his most ambitious set yet, a blend of original material and well-worn standards recorded both in the western Sahara with a stellar cast of African musicians and in the Mississippi Delta alongside an equally impressive group of American players.

Harris also has a reputation as a musician for hire, playing with everyone from Billy Bragg and Wilco to the String Cheese Incident. He even helped produce Afroman's (remember "Because I Got High"?) latest opus, Afroholic ... The Even Better Times. "I try to be original," says Harris from his home in Charlottesville, Virginia. "I play a lot of things. I'm really not limited as far as what I play. I just try to be original."

That determination to follow his muse has been a motivating factor in Harris's life and career. Born in Denver, Colorado in 1969 and raised in New Orleans, he grew up professing a love for all forms of so-called "black music" -- R&B, funk, reggae, blues -- and it was that devotion that fueled his determination to trace its African origins. After studying anthropology at Bates College in Maine, he made two extended trips to Cameroon in the early Nineties, one for three months, the other for ten. His immersion in African culture informed memories of stories told to him by his mother about growing up in the Depression; both would find similar expression through the blues. "I always liked African music," says Harris. "There always seemed to be this natural connection."

On his 1995 debut release, Between Midnight and Day, Harris found inspiration in rural blues masters such as Charlie Patton and Son House, eventually adding his personal imprint to that sound. His subsequent releases -- albums he has recorded as a solo artist and with other collaborators, including his hard-rocking 5 X 5 Band -- have found him journeying along an increasingly tangled path, expanding his horizons even as he seeks new ways of uncovering his roots.

Harris's big opportunity to capture a larger audience came when he was tapped in 2002 to host the first installment of Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues, the critically acclaimed seven-part documentary series that aired last fall on PBS. On "Feel Like Going Home," he explored the cross-cultural connection between African folk and African-American blues traditions, shooting segments in acclaimed guitarist Ali Farka Toure's hometown of Niafunke, Mali. Harris notes he was surprised when he was approached for the series.

"They called my manager and things flowed from there, but I don't really know why they wanted me," he says. As executive producer, Scorsese contracted seven world-famous directors for the other segments, but chose to direct "Feel Like Going Home" himself. "I don't know if [Scorsese] had heard my music, but I'm sure somebody around him had," Harris continues. "He has a lot of people working with him and someone probably brought it to his attention."

Whatever the reason, the series provided a perfect springboard for an idea that had been germinating in Harris's mind for some time. He used the opportunity to take his blues back to Africa, retracing the journey Africans had made as an enslaved people to America. In the process, he sought to reconnect the roots between the music of his native country and that of his ancestral homeland. "I wanted to do a record on the continent, and that experience helped me make up my mind," he explains. "I had been down to Mali before, but this time they flew me in and made all the connections."

Since Harris had already established some relationships during the filming of the "Feel Like Going Home" documentary, the subsequent Mississippi to Mali sessions yielded a dialogue that flows with a natural symmetry. Traditional tunes and archival gems such as Skip James's "Special Rider Blues" and "Cypress Grove" are reinvented through the pulse of native percussionists. Coupled with Toure's singular style, the music sounds seamless and revelatory at the same time.

Not that there wasn't a need for adjustments, however. "It was really cool recording in Mali," confides Harris. "But we were totally subject to their schedule there. They didn't have electricity 24 hours a day so we had to plan around them. They turned off the electricity at midnight but didn't turn it on again until four or five in the afternoon. So we didn't really have a particular setup time.

"Yet it actually made it seem a lot more free and unrestricted. We had to hold on to everything. Once we played something we had to keep it, and that made it special. We had to try to bring it into the moment and that meant playing well all the time."

In a very real sense, Mississippi to Mali, grounded in history, heritage, custom, and tradition, contained field recordings for a new millennium. Harris, though, a former public school teacher, dismisses any notion that it was strictly an academic exercise. "I don't worry about that. I'm not an academic," he says. "I'm just doing what I do, doing a lot of observation. Besides, if I was an academic, I probably wouldn't be making music."

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Lee Zimmerman