by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., March 22, 2002) -- Several years ago San Francisco singer-songwriter Markus James journeyed to the West African nation of Mali to record an interview with his musical idol, Ali Farka Toure, for the public radio program AfroPop Worldwide. It was apparently a life-changing experience for James, who has gone deep inside the music of Mali and fused it with American blues and contemporary folk to create a new kind of African-American folk fusion he calls “world blues” that he showcased at Club Helsinki on Thursday night.
Accompanied by Malian singer/instrumentalist Sidibe, who played calabash, a large gourd cut in half that gives a deep, heartbeat-like tone, and kamele n’goni, a six-stringed, harp-like instrument, James played guitar and sang songs off his two albums recorded in Mali, Where You Want to Be and Nightbird.
James’s songs were based on Malian scales and modes, typically delicate, five- and six-note patterns and riffs repeated and varied slightly and punctuated by Sidibe’s rhythms. With just one or two chords, they sound to American ears like a type of pre-blues or proto-blues, with the raw yearning quality and the dirty, guttural moan of acoustic Delta blues.
The acoustic arrangements had a quiet, pastoral feel that matched the song’s content, mostly impressions of life in Mali, with many references to the river flowing through the country that overflows its banks each year much like the Nile in Egypt. In James’s music, the Mali river plays a role similar to that of the Mississippi in American blues – it is a life source and a wellspring, but it is also something spiritual, wrapped in joy and also in pain.
In a typical number, James and Sidibe would set up a modal riff, with James playing melody on guitar and Sidibe playing a variant of melody and also providing rhythm on the kamele n’goni. James’s voice was light and whispery, whereas Sidibe’s was deep and rich – the former drew melody in pencil scratches, the latter in lush sweeps of a saturated paintbrush.
James oozed sincerity in his performance, but it was a sincerity that lacked impact. The music was so light and wistful at times that it threatened to evaporate before it reached listeners’ ears. It made one understand why those like Ali Farka Toure have been combined the African rhythms and modes with the dynamism of American pop and rock – the music cried out for an electric funk rhythm section. For a quiet weekday evening, however, James’s modest set of highly stylized, mellow, chamber blues was a pleasant diversion from typical nightclub fare.
[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on March 23, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]
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