by Wes Freeman
Back in the woods of Mississippi, Eric Deaton leans back in his recliner and turns up the volume. It's 2008. He's listening to himself.
Deaton, lead guitarist for Afrissippi, has Alliance, his band's sophomore effort, on the stereo. It's an advance copy, Alliance's official release is a few weeks away, but that hasn't stopped sales in Oxford, Miss., the band's hometown. Coming on the heels of an international tour, Alliance is the band's most high profile release yet, and it features this griot-blues band at its most muscular.
Fronted by Guelel Kumba, a Fulani griot from northern Senegal, the four-piece Afrissippi started when the eclectic Deaton met Kumba in 2003. The band has seen changes since then, but in every permutation, its core has been the mystifying connection between the hill country of northern Mississippi and the savannahs of the ancient Malian Empire. Deaton's own recordings, especially 2009's Smile at Trouble - parts of which juxtapose hill country blues with Indian and Gnawa music - are a surprising look at the pentatonic blues' affinity with international forms. For Deaton, Afrissippi has a more specific job to do.
"The fundamental nature of Afrissippi is preserving and promoting the West African-Mississippi continuum," Deaton says. "It's a natural fusion of musical traditions that remain powerfully connected despite being isolated from each other for centuries."
On this night in mid-May, the citizens of Oxford, Miss., are waving at Eric Deaton and Guelel Kumba before they even get out of the car. Kumba and Deaton nod and raise fingers in acknowledgement. Deaton smiles, mentions something about small towns and how everyone knows everyone else. Kumba takes slow pulls on a Marlboro Red.
We park near one of many local bars, and the denizens of late night Oxford shout greetings to them as we walk into Jubilee on Jackson Ave. Guelel and Eric shout back, tapping hands and calling the folks along the bar by name. Afrissippi always get dap on the streets of Oxford.
Home to two of the Southeast's most emblematic cultural institutions, William Faulkner and the University of Mississippi, Oxford sits like a crossroads between nearby Memphis, the hill country of northern central Mississippi, and the delta towns bordering the Mississippi River. It is also home to a prodigious southern roots music scene influenced heavily by local blues label Fat Possum Records and the machinations of southern auteur James "Jimbo" Mathus.
Afrissippi has its roots in both camps. Deaton and drummer Kinney "Kent" Kimbrough are stalwarts of the hill country blues scene that Fat Possum Records has mined so thoroughly. Both played with the label's best-known stars, R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, Kent's father. Deaton and bassist Justin Showah have worked with Jimbo Mathus, a producer, songwriter and musician who has worked with Elvis Costello, Buddy Guy, and his own band, the Squirrel Nut Zippers. Guelel Kumba, a Fulani griot from northern Senegal, is a relative newcomer to the local scene, but as repeated shout-outs in Jubilee indicate, acceptance hasn't been an issue.
The vibe in Jubilee is convivial; Mississippi's famous heat isn't in full flower yet. Kumba and Deaton wonder about Showah's whereabouts. Deaton believes he's on tour with Mathus, though Kumba says he saw him that morning at Showah's studio, Voyager's Rest. Band morale is low. Back in Senegal, Guelel's uncle has died. A prospective tour of Canada just fell through because of visa complications. Although the booking agent for its Canadian tour is scrambling to find Afrissippi some dates in the U.S., the band is in financial limbo until they play the Chicago Blues Festival in June.
If there's one thing Afrissippi can be happy about, it's their latest record. Recorded in 2007 at Mathus' Delta Recording Service in Como, Miss., Alliance shows the band stepping beyond the tentative explorations of their 2005 debut, Fulani Journey, to emerge as a tight band with a clear vision. The band started as a way to connect the highly rhythmic, single-chord melodies of the Hill Country blues style played by R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough to the music's roots in West Africa.
Musicologists from the time of Alan Lomax have heard the sounds of Africa in the hills of Mississippi. Afrissippi, a band of musicians who grew up in the hill country tradition and fronted by an actual African griot whose lyrics are mostly in Fulani, plays both musics side by side.
Kumba recounts a recent interview he had with Voice of America. The interviewer asked him about "Debbo Ndoogu," a track off Alliance that combines one of Deaton's hill country riffs with a gritty Fulani vocal from Kumba. It is a testament to the band's commitment and near-telepathic interplay that an effortless fusion of two such disparate forms was improvised in the studio.
"He said, 'You must have worked a long time on that song,'" Kumba chuckles.
"Easiest song on the record!" Deaton laughs.
"Yes," Kumba agrees. "I don't think he believed me."
Like most of the tracks on Alliance, "Debbo Ndoogu" is a second take.
The Afrissippi project came together in 2003, when local restaurateur and music fan Chad Henson introduced Kumba and Deaton to each other. Kumba, a singer and songwriter, played Fulani songs on an acoustic guitar. On Henson's advice, Deaton visited Kumba at his home. The two made a surprising discovery about the nature of American music.
"We just started playing a little music, just kind of seeing what each other knew," Deaton says. "Right from the get-go he played this song called 'Nduumandii' and I thought, 'Whoa, that is almost identical to a Junior [Kimbrough] song.'
"I told Guelel about that and about Junior, and he didn't know who Junior was, had never heard his music," Deaton continues. "I asked him about his song and he said he didn't write it, that it was probably 1,000 years old, that it was an old Fulani traditional song. I thought, 'Wow, that's amazing, because it sounds just like a Junior song.'
"The thought of that melody being preserved and brought over to America and being turned into a Junior song was mindblowing to me."
"Nduumandii" bore a striking resemblance to "Keep Your Hands Off That Girl," a 45 Kimbrough recorded for the High Water label in the early '80's. Kimbrough, whose pentatonic melodies were frequently built around a single chord and who used an arrhythmic drone in many of his songs, developed an idiomatic blues style that seems to borrow from African musical traditions that he never heard or had any conscious knowledge of. Other bluesmen, like Louisiana's Robert Pete Williams, Georgia's Cecil Barfield, and Kimbrough's friend and label mate R.L. Burnside, all played music that seemed to have inexplicable connections to Africa, but Deaton, as Kimbrough's former bass player, feels Junior's African connection most strongly.
"The strongest connection is between the melodies, both vocal and instrumental," Deaton says. "The pentatonic modes and scales are the foundations of both [Kimbrough's and West Africa's] styles of music, and exemplify the continuation of African tendencies in American music."
"Nduumandii/Hands Off That Girl" is the sixth track on Fulani Journey, the group's first effort to map out the connections between the Hill Country blues of northern Mississippi, and the droning, pentatonic string-based music of West Africa. Fulani Journey opens with "Ngol Jimol," a Fulani lyric Kumba sings over R.L. Burnside's "See My Jumper (Hanging On The Line)." Afrissippi's early days were built around highlighting such possibilities in their music, dim reflections of that first evening when Deaton and Kumba played together. Alliance moves forward from that evening. It seeks less to show that the blues sounds like African music (or vice-versa), showing instead that a new music can spring from exploring old ones. It's a neat trick. Maybe the neatest in a long time.
Like any project in an area blessed with a surplus of top drawer musicians, the band at first featured a fluid roster of local luminaries, including Cedric and Garry Burnside, who were also the members of Burnside Exploration, and '60's counter-culture icon John Sinclair. The centerpiece of Fulani Journey was its title track, which featured a poetic essay by Sinclair on the history of the Fulani people and the nature of African-American music after slavery. Deaton says that the Afrissippi concept came largely from the head of Chad Henson, who gave the band their name and booked them for their first show.
Henson also recommended bringing Kinney "Kent" Kimbrough on board. While playing drums with his father, the monstrously gifted Kent developed a distinctive pedal roll on the bass drum, which gives his drumming style a polyrhythmic flavor and keeps him in high demand throughout the area. The lineup jelled with the addition of bassist Justin Showah, whose Taylor Grocery Band featured Kent as a drummer. Each band member is dedicated to exploring the possibilities that Afrissippi seems to promise.
Alliance delivers on that promise. Sitting in the cabin that Deaton and local artist Emelda Lee Miller share in the remote environs of Oxford, the cornsilk-haired guitarist plays the new album on his stereo. When "Leeliyo Leele" comes on, he turns up the volume, explaining that what we are about to hear is nothing but Kumba singing over a groove concocted by Kent Kimbrough and Papa Assane M'Baye, a Wolof percussionist that Kumba brought in from Cleveland for the Alliance sessions. There are no guitars, no bass- just drums and voice.
"Ain't no 'ssippi on this one," Deaton laughs. "This is just Africa."
M'Baye's percussion work is all over the album and goes a long way toward bridging the gap between the blues and the Motherland on the new album. On "Singha," Alliance's opening track, Kent Kimbrough goes into the same hill country beat that graced so many of his father's records, and M'Baye is right in the pocket, extending Kimbrough's swing on the offbeat with asymmetrical syncopations on his Senegalese drums. Showah too is locked in on Kimbrough's magical foot and the two run through the tracks like they are in a three-legged race. Deaton's guitar tone is sharper, deeper, and his playing is harder-hitting, more assertive than it was on their first record, and his musical exchange with Kumba continues to develop. Kumba's phrasing seems to have become more bluesy, Deaton's more African. The track "Sonna," in particular, is a revelation, underscoring the VOA interviewer's assertion that Afrissippi is a blues-mbalax fusion band, a label that Kumba seems amenable to. Showah and Kimbrough never seem at a loss for surprising ideas and succeed in keeping the whole noble pursuit supremely danceable.
The band continues to surprise with how it keeps two separate traditions alive without sacrificing one for the other. Instead, they emerge with a new sound, a true fusion that honors both of its parents. It is a remarkable achievement; an important one in the face of globalization and its attendant shifts in culture.
On the street outside Jubilee, Deaton and Kumba continue to meet friends and fans, one of whom already has a copy of Alliance, though its official release date isn't for another two weeks. Kumba, Marlboro in hand, holds forth on Leopold Senghor, the first president of Senegal. Senghor was an African-born Francophile; a man who believed in Senegal, but also believed in France, its colonizer. The author of the Negritude movement, which directed its adherents to stay true to their African identity while absorbing what they could from the rest of the world, Senghor was a man comfortable with compromise.
"He believed that we should keep our African roots, but open ourselves up to the rest of the world." Kumba said of Senghor. "It is the 'opening' that is the problem.
"If we are to take what we want from the rest of the world, the knowledge it has, then we must bring what we have to give- our Africanity," Kumba says. "We must assimilate without being assimilated."
Afrissippi, at least, is a step in the right direction.
Also see Afrissippi's website
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