Donkeys get a rough break in Aesop’s fables—they’re animals of constant work, long suffering and little compensation. In “The Donkey and The Mule,” the two animals carry heavy loads up the side of a mountain; halfway through their journey, the donkey dies and the mule soldiers on, carrying the donkey’s burden further up the mountain to its peak.
When I met with Corey Harris last week, Harris—a longtime local and renowned blues and roots musician who performs at The Paramount Theater on September 13—shared two stories that could function as fables, both from his time recording with legendary African musician Ali Farka Toure in Toure’s home of Niafunke, Mali.
Blues run the game: Corey Harris performs at The Paramount Theater on Saturday, September 13, to benefit the African American Teaching Fellows.
In one, Harris talks about a donkey joining the pair during sessions for what would become his 2002 record, From Mississippi to Mali. “I remember recording, and there being a donkey there, and the donkey braying, making that donkey noise,” said Harris. “His middle name, ‘Farka,’ means ‘donkey.’ And a donkey carries weight on its shoulders.”
In the second, Harris and Toure, who became mayor of Niafunke before his death in 2006, stood together and watched Toure’s cows slowly make their way home from the opposite side of the Niger River. “Hundreds and hundreds of cows,” said Harris. “Maybe thousands of cows. And they came in from far. All of the sudden, the cows were coming home.”
In truth, the blues are like both tales—sometimes they spread the burden among hundreds or thousands, and sometimes they carry the immense load like a single, stubborn donkey, yelping their noise and struggle. The blues are meant to call up traditions—not just the Delta sounds Harris called up in the early ’90s on the Downtown Mall, but the buried roots beneath popular music, as much from mud and water as from Muddy Waters. And the blues are meant to disguise and disperse those traditions among hundreds and hundreds, among thousands.
Harris has done a good deal of both types of work, digging into traditional styles (Between Midnight and Day, or dig up his cover of “Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground”) and integrating whatever he can get his hands on (plenty of examples, but Downhome Sophisticate and 2007’s Zion Crossroads are perhaps his best). Following the release of Zion, Harris received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, which guarantees an annual payment of $100,000 for five years.
With the MacArthur grant comes the dismissal of some weight and the addition of some more. Harris told WINA radio host Coy Barefoot in October 2007 that “They [the MacArthur Foundation] don’t want to hear from you. They just want you to go and do your thing.” And Harris has; in the last year, he performed a handful of local gigs between concerts in Los Angeles and Romania, and returned on occasion to Mali. He compared the job of a musician to that of an independent contractor; thanks to the MacArthur grant, he can now occasionally afford to turn down a gig.
Harris’ performance at the Paramount, a benefit for the local African American Teaching Fellows, looks to be his largest local gig in a few months, but the songwriter plans to stick around the area for some time while preparing another album for Telarc Records. It’s no small feat for Harris, who tends to turn albums into projects that involve a great deal of travel, from Mississippi to New Orleans to Mali, to stick around Charlottesville for a record.
“It will be out sometime next year—maybe in the summertime, maybe sooner,” said Harris. “It’s gonna be an acoustic record.”
So the blues change again for Harris, and the new load becomes different than the last. The moral? Sometimes a musician needs to come home.
Film season! At long last! Respite from my crippling late fees at Sneak Reviews! (So I needed a sixth day to watch David Duchovny in the entire first season of “Californication,” all right?)
Yes, the Virginia Film Festival looms ahead like a spectacular, rising sun—or, you know, the glowing foreheads of the Weinstein brothers. And details are surfacing about this year’s theme, “Aliens!,” which promises to bring a broadcast of Orson Welles’ “The War of the Worlds” and the 1953 film of the same story. The fest even had some fun with the press release, and included a link to a 1938 Daily Progress story about searching for life on Mars at the Leander McCormick Observatory. The films of experimental director Jeanne Liotta, which played at The Bridge earlier this year, will screen among others during a series of movies at the same observatory, which ought to appeal to film buffs and interstellar conspiracy theorists. As an “X-Files” and Duch fan, I’m both.
But the VFF announcement served a second important function: an informal reminder that student-run film organization OFFScreen is up and running again! Not that the website was easy to find (check the schedule at offscreen-uva.blogspot.com); I already missed Tropic Thunder and Pineapple Express standout Danny McBride in The Foot Fist Way.
Still, OFFScreen is the best film option in town, and this year’s schedule seems like an appropriate one for bringing in new devotees—a mix of the oddball, the obscure and the oh-my-stars-this-will-be-great. Be sure to catch screenings of Jeff Nichols’ Shotgun Stories on September 28 and Pat O’Neil’s Decay of Fiction on October 26. For those of you new to OFFScreen, screenings are held on Sundays at 7pm and 9:30pm at the Newcomb Hall Theater on the UVA Grounds, and tickets are $3 per film.
Feedback Session: Straight Punch to the Crotch
Our local band with more pop than a 12-pack of Dr. Pepper, Straight Punch to the Crotch, dropped by the C-VILLE Weekly office last week with a stripped-down setup to play a few tunes for our second Feedback Session. Whether this is your first Punch or simply your most recent, the group is sure to knock the wind out of you. Catch ’em next at Blue Moon Diner on September 9 as part of the Charlottesville Lady Arm Wrestlers competition or September 20 at Zinc, or catch ’em now right here.