Last month, at the invitation of Arthur Brown, onetime Keswickian now working with the U.S. State Department in Conakry, Guinea, Charlottesville musicians Corey Harris and Darrell Rose visited Guinea and Sierra Leone for two weeks as musical ambassadors to those West African countries. For Harris, the much-celebrated blues guitarist and songwriter whose musical journey homeward was recently the subject of a documentary film by Martin Scorsese, the trip fit into his larger goal to spread awareness of the roots of Black American music. His recent work, he says, is “not only so I can learn and be a better musician, but just to pull people’s coats to say, ‘Hey this is what’s going on over there. The world is bigger than Alaska to New York.’” Rose, a percussionist who plays frequently with Harris and sits in with groups like The Wailers, was deeply affected by the respect accorded to musicians in Africa. It was, he says, “like going home.” Harris and Rose talked about their experiences in a recent interview with C-VILLE editor Cathy Harding. That conversation is excerpted below.
Cathy Harding: Why did Arthur Brown ask you to make this trip?
Corey Harris: Well, I think the purpose was to highlight lesser-known styles of American music. The State Department has a program called the “Jazz Ambassadors” that they’ve been offering since the ’50s, and the past several years it’s diversified to include several different types of music.
Also this helps put a good face on the U.S., because of course the way the world is today people aren’t feeling too happy with the United States.
Did you have any ambivalence about being officially supported by the U.S. government?
Harris: It didn’t bother me because I think of myself first and foremost as a citizen of the world. I guess because my ancestors were slaves I don’t feel like I owe the government anything, you know what I mean? I also feel like if I’m presenting myself as a citizen of the world, as an international black man who has a love and interest in Africa, then I don’t need to explain myself.
Darrell, what was the experience like for you bringing your instruments [djembe and other traditional African percussion] into Guinea and Sierra Leone?
Darrell Rose: Well, I think it was for me to represent correctly what I’ve been taught over the years and to come in a humble fashion to learn more and to come correct. Based on what we did, we came correct.
Harris: It was interesting because here in the States if you’re really, really good you get kind of put up on a pedestal. There the respect is shown in a different way. Even the greatest musician in Guinea—if you are moved by his solo and you want to go over and give him some money you can just climb up on stage and tuck some money in his shirt. If you’re at, I don’t know, an Aerosmith concert and you try that you’re going to get beaten down by the bouncers.
We both ran into a lot of really exceptional musicians and what really surprised me about their mastery most was that they’re very hip to Western music, very hip to Black American music. They’re much more aware of the style and the sonic characteristics of our music than we are of them as a whole, meaning black people, I guess because we’ve been over here so long we’ve kind of developed our own little culture and we don’t feel like we need to listen to other black cultures’ music. There it was different. Musicians know all about their traditional music, where they come from, the roots of what they do, and they know everybody else’s stuff too. I mean, they’re equally literate playing blues, they can play jazz, they can play Cuban-style salsa music, Mandingo…
Has the experience changed you as a performer or songwriter?
Rose: Well, it’s changed the way that I listen.
Harris: This trip was the seventh time I’ve been over to Africa and it was significant. It was like I could benefit from the experience of having been there before and the musical things that I heard in Mali and also in Cameroon and in Morocco. I think I began to understand them better by being in Guinea and I’m not really sure why but it definitely had a change on my playing. It kind of in a way tied up a lot of loose musical ends, like maybe questions musically that I had or little things that are characteristic of African music that I may not have understood.
The main thing for me is that it kind of put me on a different orientation and it showed me a lot about myself and our history as black people. Yeah, we came with blues and later jazz and that was our gift to the world, but that is just a branch of the tree. Being in Africa we were able to observe the whole tree and it put things in perspective.
You went as musical ambassadors but it sounds as if a great deal of your time spent there was really as students. I’m sure the devastation and severe poverty gave the music a completely different meaning there where here it’s more of an entertainment.
Rose: In Sierra Leone I think there was an urgency. It was like playing blues to uplift yourself. So there’s a sadness there. When Corey was singing “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel” it was like the room just stood up, everybody got up and started clapping.
Harris: In Sierra Leone, they’ve been through all this hell for 10, 11 years but you could see that people were so sick of war that they appreciated the value of a simple smile.
Our experiences were very different in Conakry as opposed to Sierra Leone. The rebels who were fighting in Sierra Leone were supported by Liberia, by Charles Taylor, and everyone knows about the atrocities. They had armies of children who were amputating, chopping people’s hands off, mutilating them. In fact, someone told me that rebel soldiers would slit the children under their eyes and then rub cocaine in their eyes and then make the kids go do these things.
Talking with the musicians, [we learned] the culture of the society has really been devastated. They were saying, “Well, we used to have other members but so-and-so got killed, so-and-so ran off.” So they’re picking up the pieces right off the floor.
Whereas Guinea, they went through a dictatorship. Sekou Touré was a dictator in Guinea. Basically, Guinea was the first African colony to get their independence from the French. Being nationalistic, the government wanted to show what the nation could do culturally and artistically in a national sense representing all the ethnic groups of Guinea. Now when that government ended several years ago, that whole system went out the window but they’re still benefiting from it in that they had several decades of a system where the youth were developed and brought up and they were supported and you didn’t have to work at the post office or sell food or drive a taxi cab to make a living as a musician. In Guinea we were able to meet more with musicians and really get to know them better, whereas in Sierra Leone we only interacted with them at the events that were set up by the embassy.
How does this experience influence what you see as your musical or social mission here?
Rose: My goal is to have as many children as I can possibly get for a big performance, it may be at First Night if I can pull them all together and then we would like to perhaps take some children across to Africa some day where they can see, can experience what’s going on over there.
Harris: It’s a dream of ours to be able to establish a nonprofit and find somebody to fund a trip to send some chaperones and some children over to the continent to a place where we’ve been before, like Guinea, where we have contact. And another great thing about this is that since we did work with the diplomatic organizations in both areas, all that infrastructure is there. I think the benefit of something like that if it were on an annual or semi-annual basis over the years for this community would be tremendous not only in the level of musicianship but also in terms of the understanding of the children of their world. Because, let’s face it, Africa has a stigma on it different than almost any other continent. People have so many misconceptions, and the media in this country doesn’t help it. The only time you hear of something about Africa is some really crazy off-the-wall stuff, either it’s a horrible war; it may have been a drought, a coup, something of that sort. We both want to show that there are no generalizations that can be applied to Africa.
The other thing I would like to do is to be able to establish some sort of fund to help the musicians over there. A country like Guinea with around 7 million people, they don’t have a music school, they don’t sell music supplies, they don’t sell guitar strings in the whole country, neither do they in Sierra Leone.
What can people do to help with nonprofit organizing or sending over guitar strings?
Harris: They can e-mail us at email@example.com or you can just go to the Coreyharrismusic.com website.
Corey Harris and Darryl Rose will play the Prism Saturday, April 30, at 8pm. Tickets cost $18-22. Call 97-PRISM for more information.