With today's blues increasingly rocked up, formulaic, and formally schooled, finding a band that's taking the music in a new direction, doesn't happen, often. And, when the blues go back in time, it's typically self-consciously retro - pulling out, note for note, the National Steel guitar, or, a harp played through a bullet microphone.
Along comes Afrissippi, an accidental band, in almost all respects. This band takes the music all the way back to Africa, and creates a modern, original sound, at the same time. The unlikely story of Afrissippi, required a West African visitor to the States, a sushi restaurant in Mississippi, and a young man who could hear the potential in intertwining the trance-like, Mississippi hill country blues and droning, West African melodies.
Afrissippi is a band with a core membership, but its talented musical line-up also ebbs and flows. These musicians count on finding their groove on-stage, and feel their way through the music. Along the way, they have found the space between traditional West African music and hill country blues.
On stage, this band turns heads, from its first notes. Imagine a serene, African man, in a broad, striking, conical, leather hat, playing acoustic guitar, moving around, singing, in a familiar sounding, but, unknown, language. There are two White musicians, in colorful, floor length, African garb. And, there is a man playing a hand drum, trading musical rhythms with a drummer, on a full kit, who channels shades of Junior Kimbrough's deep hill country blues. Sweet African guitar licks merge, and the blurred boundaries make beautiful, bluesy music.
Though they have been around for a few years, now, and have played many prestigious venues, including the Chicago Blues Festival, Afrissippi's first full tour of the United States didn't began until August of 2008. The tour was exhausting, taking them, literally, from coast to coast, for nightly gigs, over the course of a month.
Afrissippi's central figure is Guelel Kumba , a native of Senegal, and now a resident of Oxford, Mississippi. He was born in 1975, in Pete, a rural village, on the Senegal River, in the Futa Toro Region of Senegal. Though both Senegal and Mauritania come together in this area, Guelel says the boundaries were meaningless to him. In fact, his father was from Senegal and his mother was born in Mauritania.
Guelel is Fulani, a minority in Senegal, and generally, a nomadic, often cattle herding, people; and, as are most of his countrymen, he's Muslim. He also speaks and sings in several languages.
He was raised by his paternal grandfather, and comes from the West African familial tradition of griots - passing praise music and oral history on to new generations. Guelel's father did not carry on the tradition, and Guelel says that he never expected to play music, professionally. He sang and danced as a child, and learned how to play a one string guitar (molo), and later, the six string guitar. In his teens, while still living in Senegal, Guelel remembers hearing John Lee Hooker and James Brown, among others, from the West.
At his father's urging, Guelel attended university, in Paris, studying sociology, for a time. Ironically, Paris is where he was first drawn into the African music scene. Eventually, he worked with famed Senegalese performers, Baaba Maal and Youssou N'Dour, as well as others.
Today, Guelel plays traditional African music, writes and develops new songs, plays stringed instruments, and sings. He recently opened an African restaurant, in Oxford, named after his late mother - Mama Kumba's African Soul Kitchen.
Eric Deaton is a North Carolina native who headed to Chulahoma, Mississippi, and the Kimbrough family juke, to hone his guitar and bass skills, as soon as he was old enough to drive. He quickly became family to the Kimbrough and Burnside clans.
Eric has recorded two CDs under his own name, Gonna Be Trouble Here, and Smile at Trouble. Today, when he's not on the road with Afrissippi or another artist, Eric plays gigs, leading his own band, and teaches guitar.
Kinney Kimbrough (the band calls him Kent) is the drummer, and a sometime mechanic and mower. He's Junior Kimbrough's son. Kinney is now in his early thirties, and has been playing since he was eight - appearing on most of Junior's CDs, including All Night Long, Most Things Haven't Worked Out, and Meet Me in the City (all under the name, Kenny Malone). He also worked with other hill country artists, including Johnny Woods, Othar Turner, and R.L. Burnside. After losing his dad, Kinney thought he might give up music, but he's back with this new family, and having a blast.
Finally, Justin Showah plays bass and manages the band. He also founded their new record label - Hill Country Records. He's worked with a few other Mississippi-based bands, including the Taylor Grocery Band.
For this interview, Papa Assane M'Baye (called Assane by the band) managed to make the trip to the Chicago Blues Festival and to join in the interview. Assane appears as a percussionist on Afrissippi's second CD, Alliance . He lives in Cleveland and doesn't often get to play with the group. He's another native of Senegal and knew Guelel back home. The two have wanted to record together, and, managed it once, but, the CD has never been released. Assane recorded the 2005, Mame Michelle Lam, under his own name.
Along the way, long-time blues poet, writer, and spoken word performer, John Sinclair, has also worked with the band. Others, who have joined them on the road, or in the studio, include sax player, Herman Green , from B.B. King's band; roots rocker, former Squirrel Nut Zippers founder, and recording studio head, Jimbo Mathus ; R.L. Burnside's sons, Gary and Cedric Burnside ; and lap steel player, Max Williams .
Directly off the stage in Chicago, the band members were ready to talk - laughing easily, patiently answering questions - often helping each other finish sentences.
A Little About Senegal and Its Musical Heritage
The African roots of Afrissippi are found in the Republic of Senegal, on the Atlantic Ocean, nearly 5000 miles from Mississippi. Senegal is the Western-most point of the African continent - a low-lying country with both semi-desert and grasslands in the North, and heavier vegetation to the South.
Most of its people are herders, fishermen, miners, subsistence farmers, or grow cash crops, such as peanuts, millet, rice, and cotton. And, though the majority of the Senegalese people live in rural areas, the country's capital, Dakar, is a thoroughly modern, bustling city.
Forever linking Senegal and its people to the U.S., along with much of West Africa, millions of its people were captured and shipped off to the New World as slaves. The country was colonized by various nations, eventually becoming a French colony, in the mid 1800s, until its independence, in 1960. Today, French remains the national language.
Given colonial French influence, a long, powerful, up-tempo, Senegalese musical tradition was eclipsed for many years by Western music, until independence. The first President of the newly independent country, Leopold Sedar Senghor, himself, a poet, urged recognition of Senegal's own rich musical origins. In the years following its independence, Western style dance bands, playing in Senegal's nightclubs, began to add indigenous elements, including African drums and lyrics.
Best known of these bands was Ibra Kasse's Star Band, which eventually spawned a number of other groups. A new, modern, Senegalese-rooted music slowly emerged, internationally, through the sounds of Toure Kunda, Etoile de Dakar, El Hadji Faye, and Youssou N'Dour. Many elements of this sound can be found in Afrissippi's music.
In Their Own Words
Eric: "I guess the beginning, in a way, was Guelel moving to Oxford."
Guelel: "I was (living in) New York - in Brooklyn, for six months. The first time I came (to Mississippi), in 2001, to pay tribute to Professor Peter Aschoff (who had passed away)."
"I didn't know him, personally. But, there was a blues festival in Senegal, and he came. The one who organized it was a friend of mine. He used to be a student of Peter Aschoff."
Eric: "(Peter) was a professor of blues at Ole Miss, The University of Mississippi."
Guelel: "At the night, I performed acoustic, and I met Chad Henson, and he liked the music. He was the owner of Two Stick (a sushi restaurant). He convinced me to come back and I wanted also to come back (to Mississippi) (laughs)."
Eric: "Chad Henson convinced him to move from New York to Oxford (in 2003). Chad told me, 'You've got to meet this guy, Guelel. He lives in Oxford. He's from Senegal. He plays this music that sounds just like hill country blues."
"I was already hip to the African - blues connection. I was listening to Ali Farka Toure, since I was a teenager, and other African music. So, I was already there - on the connection. So, when Chad told me, I was like, 'Ok, yeah, I need to meet this guy'. I went over to Guelel's house with Chad. Guelel and I sat down and pulled out our guitars and started doing some stuff. And, one of the first things that Guelel did was an old, traditional Fulani song, from like centuries back. And, I heard it and I said, 'Man, that melody sounds almost just like Keep Your Hands Off That Girl ' - one of Junior (Kimbrough's) songs."
Guelel: "The hill country, the music is so close to African music in a lot of ways - the improvisation - African music is all about improvisation."
Eric: "He had that sound. Guelel had never heard Junior, so, it wasn't that he was trying to play to sound that way. And, just the idea that this old African melody was preserved in Mississippi, it was really amazing. So, we were both really excited about it, and I started playing Junior for Guelel, and he started playing, and we started getting each other into blues and African music."
Guelel: "Like the griot - he is going to right away make up some lyrics, and some melodies, and some rhythms - just inspired by the situation. A lot of African music is like that. And, blues also is like that. It's a lot of improvisation, depending to your feeling at the moment - the way you see the public, or the audience - if it is crowded, or, if it is not crowded - both of them can give you some inspiration."
Eric: "Chad booked a show at Two Stick and he said, 'I'm going to call it Afrissippi.' He asked me, 'Could I get Kent (Kinney Kimbrough) to come down?' I said, 'I probably could'. I called Kent. He came down and played drums. And, we were all so excited about it, that we needed to make this a regular band. And, so, we've been working on it ever since."
"And, Chad was also friends with John Sinclair. So, John did some of his spoken word stuff, and that was the first Afrissippi show. John travels all over, but he mostly lives in Amsterdam. When he comes to Mississippi, he's part of the band."
Kinney: "I call this a blessing, because, after my father passed, I just couldn't find no one, really, that could just collaborate and just hold that same groove. See, my brother, Dave (Kimbrough), he could do it, but, he's off doing his own thing. I knew that Eric could play it, 'cause me and him would play together all of the time. We played with Paul Wine (Jones) and Mr. (Robert) Belfour, Mr. R.L. Burnside. (Eric and I) been in my dad's band 'til he passed."
"After then, after he passed, I stayed off for maybe a year and a half from playing music with anybody. Until I got back into it, and gradually, when I run across Eric, and he said, 'I just run across a guy from Senegal. You ought to come by and check it out'. He said, 'He's kind of got that groove like your daddy got'. I said, 'Alright then'."
"When I got down there, I heard it. I knew then - Eric said, 'He ain't never met your father. He ain't never seen him. Nothing man'. We got together and got to playing. I been there ever since. It's that groove man - how we mix that music together."
Eric: "Justin joined us a little later after - I'd say about six months, or so - after we had started. And, then he started doing most of the bookings. Assane just got involved with this new (second) record."
The Afrissippi Sound
Assane: "Guelel and I played together, in Senegal. We do a record together, in Senegal. That record never come out. It was '96, '97, something like that. I knew he was in the United States - in New York. We never got contact together. I come here in 2000."
"I was in Germany, England. (Then, I) come to Cleveland, Ohio. I saw Guelel, on a stage in New York, at an African dance conference. For one year, I played with a group (that did) African dance. That's how I came to the United States. We was doing a tour. It was my first time (seeing him here). I said, 'That's Guelel. I know him'.
We talked and then he called me and said, 'I'm doing a record. I want you to be a part of it'. And, I always wanted to work with him, because, that record we did, in Senegal, it was traditional - some Senegalese African instruments. And, then I come to Mississippi (and recorded Alliance ). It was nice."
Eric: "This (Chicago Blues Festival) is the first time Assane has played with us, since the record. Unfortunately, logistically, it's tough getting together, but, this time it worked out, because, Cleveland is not too far."
Kinney: "You see Guelel and Assane - the way they play. They let it flow, free. (Our music comes) from a connection. When me and Eric would play with my father, he would say, 'Play it'. I'd say, 'How do you want me to play it'. He'd say, 'I ain't got to tell you how to play it'. He wouldn't tell us how to play it. He'd say, 'Play it. Just stay on time, but don't mess it up (all laugh)'."
Guelel: "It's like they (Assane and Kinney) are both griots."
Kinney: "No one (says), 'Play it like this, or do it like this'. Since I played with my father all of the time, I had that certain feel for it. Everybody's free will - play what you feel, and it just all comes together. And, that's the way it is."
Eric: "It has been a very natural thing. Most of it is jamming."
Guelel: "Like today, I was just feeling it, and you all did it. There are some structures we respect. Even clapping hands, if you don't do it in the rhythm, right away people going to feel it. If the rhythm is respected, you are free to improvise."
Eric: "Some of the songs we do are traditional, West African songs, where Guelel is just singing the words, and what we're doing is unique, because, we add our own touch to it. Then, there are songs that Guelel is writing, but, the music we play might be a groove straight out of North Mississippi - straight out of R.L. or Junior."
Kinney: "You never play the same way twice. It keeps you more happy like that. If it's more programmed, then, it's like a job, then. We see it as having fun. We get inspiration from other people. When we see a person feeling good, it makes us feel good. We're not programmed, if they feel good, or not, we don't care. We just make our money, and go."
Guelel: "When we first play, at Two Sticks, we was feeling it."
Kinney: "A guy told me after the show (today), it's a different texture of music, and it just takes you away. It just takes you somewhere."
Eric: "When we get together and play, we don't think about - this part it African, this part is blues. I think what's really special about this band is not that we're trying to do this or trying to do that. We actually have guys from an old tradition, in Senegal, that have come up and are part of that, and we have guys from an old tradition, with Mississippi blues, and they just naturally come together. It's not a forced thing, at all. It's just a completely natural thing and that makes it a really special group."
Kinney: "Without even talking to each other - we don't even look at each other. We just feel it. We just know it. I knew myself. I said, 'Well, he's playing the hand drum. I'm playing the drums'. It was kind of simple. 'Don't overdo it'."
Assane: "I used to tell people there are a lot of griot people in the United States. People don't know. Because, a lot of people come from a (musical tradition). It's in their blood."
Eric: "I don't have any blues players in my family. I call my first musical inspiration my grandfather. He was a preacher, from Virginia, but, he played harmonica, for fun, at family gatherings. He would play harmonica, and cut up, and my grandmother would say he was a rascal, and not a preacher, and stuff like that (laughs). And, also, my mother was an accomplished piano player. But, certainly nobody was playing the blues. I got into that on my own. In terms of the style of music, it really comes from his (Kinney's) family history. My style of music is the Kimbrough style of music - the Burnside style of music."
"I met you (Kinney) before that - but, I was going to college, and ended up not finishing school, and ended up pursuing music. That's what I've been doing ever since."
Kinney: "We adopted him."
Guelel: "My family, are what we call Fulani. Me ,myself, (I'm) from a griot family. My dad, he stopped the tradition. He was not playing. But, I had some cousins who were in the national troop. One was a singer, and the other was a part of the national Senegalese ballet.
Assane: "I went to school with my family (to learn music). That's all they do. Blues music is similar to Senegalese music - a lot. I never played blues in my life. I listened to a lot of music - R&B music, not blues. I listen to blues here. People ask me, 'How'd you end up playing with (Afrissippi)'? 'What happened'? I say, 'Guelel call me (and) we hook up together'."
Guelel: "I was trying to learn the five-string guitar, and these guys who are Mandingo, from Mali, and I brought my guitar and asked him for lessons. He just said, 'There are no lessons. You just follow people'."
Eric: "And, that was the way Junior was."
Guelel: "(Kinney) comes from a long line - a music family. Like I do - my family. You just play."
Eric: "There's no talking about it - no discussion. You sit down and make music happen."
Kinney: "It makes you feel better because, (they) want you to learn that way."
Eric: "And, I never practiced with Junior, once."
Kinney: "Daddy never practiced, and we ain't never practiced. He said, 'If you can play, you can play. If you can't, you can't. It's up to you to know what you got to do'."
Guelel: "We just play and I jump on it. I never tried to teach (Eric) how. I just played, and he followed."
Eric: "It seemed very natural to me. The connection was very automatic. A lot of what made us realize this was such a special thing is it was so automatic. It was exciting."
"For a while, we didn't play with a bass player, and we thought maybe we don't need a bass player. But, Justin heard us play and he really liked it. He asked us, 'Do you guys need a bass player?' And, so, he came out, and he sounded great."
Guelel: "Justin is a good bass player."
Eric: "We thought, 'Well ok'. Justin joined us six months after we had done our first show. And, Justin also brought to the band a healthy business sense. He's more the organizing factor, of the band, than any of us, and he, more than anybody, made that first record happen. We went to Jimbo's (Mathus) studio. We did two sessions in one day ( Fulani Journey ) and that was it."
Eric: "For the most part, we're just doing music, now. I know Guelel is doing part-time work, in a kitchen, in Oxford. I'm about to start a little part-time work, in a guitar store. And, I teach some guitar lessons. And, Justin's dad runs a restaurant, in Jackson, and, he'll go down and work with him some days. We do what we gotta do, to pick up money."
Kinney: "I prefer not to play with no other band, but this band. We don't argue with each other. That's one main thing. We don't hide nothing. You got a talent. Put it to good use."
Eric: "The people who have stayed with the band are people that musically feel what we are doing and are enthusiastic about what we are doing. And, also, that we can get along with."
Guelel: "The rhythm is inspired by tradition, but, the lyrics are new.
I want to keep experimenting."
Kinney: "There's more percussion on the second one. There's more strings on the first one."
Eric: "Having Assane on the second record definitely gave it a whole new level."
Kinney: "We're a family."
Eric: "A big part of any group is if you can get along, and this group always has."
Guelel: "I know (for) myself and Assane, in Africa, one of our best values is to respect people and try to do your best. "
Eric: "When we listen, especially to the second record, there were several years elapsed between the first one and the second one, and, I think we grew a lot as a band. We're a lot closer. We know each other better, as people, and musicians."
The Kimbrough Method
Kinney: "The best (way to learn to play music) is your family, because, they teach you - they don't try to put it on you. A lot of musicians run away from home when their parents haven't did it and don't know what it takes to do it. It's time for piano or drum lessons - 'Hey mom, dad, can I just feel it, and play it'?"
"It's a wicked thing how I learned to play drums. They would be in the house practicing - (my father) and the original Soul Blues Boys. And, me and my brother, David, we would sit in the house, and he would tell us, 'Don't you all bother the instruments - we're fixing to go up town'. You know, the old men, they'd go up town and take them a drink."
"I tell David and them, 'They're gone'. I said, 'What did they do with the guitars?' He said, 'I don't know'."
"They'd take and hide the guitars up in the top of the ceiling of the house. We would get a chair and a five-gallon bucket and get them out of the ceiling. So, we get 'em down, and we were just doing what kids do. We sang the songs. We practically taught ourselves. But, we learned from them doing it."
"And, one day he come back home. He back tracked on us and caught us in there playing music. I looked around and it stunned me so bad my heart jumped out of my chest. We looked at him and he didn't say nothing. He walked on off."
"I said, 'David, you bet we going to get a whooping?' He said, 'I don't know. Let's see'. We snuck around the corner and (dad) had kicked his shoes off. He was laying in bed looking at the TV. I said, 'He ain't said nothing'. I said, 'Come on. Let's go back in there. We started back to playing, and he come in there, and start playing with us."
"He said, 'I'm going to tell you something. If I would have told you all to go start playing on it, you wouldn't of did it. I wanted to make it to see if you really wanted to do it'. We learned just like that, man."
And, you know, we would go places with him, but, we'd be at a young age. My mom, she was like, 'Junior, no. I don't want them to go nowhere'. He said, 'Oh come on, Mag' - her name's Magnolia, my mother's a sweet lady. He said, 'Ain't nothing going to happen to them. I'm going to look out for them'.
"So, we would go play. She said, 'If you come back and tell me anything happened to any one of my babies, don't come in this house'. And, so, he said, 'You know better than that'."
"But, he messed around and let me and David see where he hid the whisky up under the car seat. Me and Dave go up under there while he was playing. We got to drinking whiskey. He looked at us and said, 'What's wrong with you all'. We said, 'Nothing'."
"We gets to the house. We're laying in the car asleep. Mama's like, 'How long they been asleep'? He said, 'Oh, they're alright'."
"She said, 'I got 'em. I'll take 'em and lay em down'. She take us into bed, man, and lay us down. She said, 'What's wrong with you all? You smell like you been drinking'. She said, Junior, 'You come here."
Junior, he says, 'Sweetheart, I didn't know those boys were in that car drinking that whiskey' (laughs)."