By Bruce Robinson
The man was old, dark-skinned and blind, wearing a blue suit as he stood singing on a D.C. street corner. Four-year-old Markus James was entranced.
“It’s the first memory I have of music,” the bluesman recalls. “It was as if he was in his own world, and all this noise and bustle on the street, which was louder than him, somehow went away and I could hear his sound, even though he was singing very quietly and plaintively. It was like time stood still and I heard only him, like he was some kind of an angel.”
Fast-forward a couple of decades to another pivotal experience: “The Smithsonian Folklife Festival where I first heard West African string music and singing. That was Alhaji Bai Konte, and I was completely mesmerized by him,” James says, seeming a bit distant as he revisits the moment.
It’s a short hop from those memories to the present, where they form the foundation for a rare and wonderful cross-cultural synthesis. For the past dozen years, James has traveled frequently from his west Sonoma County home to the West African nation of Mali, where he has performed, written and recorded with some of that region’s most revered traditional musicians. Those collaborations, which explore a hypnotic linkage between acoustic delta blues and the timeless modalities of the desert instruments, have been captured in a series of four self-released CDs (with two more due out on a national label early next year) and the award-winning video documentary, Timbuktoubab.
“It’s been about creating something that’s based on blues music from my end,” James says, citing Charley Patton, Bukka White, Skip James, Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker as influences, “[and] based on traditional music from their end.” James performs such a melding on Nov. 3 at the Sebastopol Community Center.
That also involves such ancient instruments as the calabash (a hollowed gourd drummed on with small sticks), the njarka (a sort of one-stringed violin) and the eight-stringed kamele n’goni, known as the hunter’s harp of the Wassalou people. But for the Wassalou, these instruments are not for entertainment, James explains. The harp, for instance, is played “to get into a trancelike state to commune with the spirits of the animals they’re gonna go hunt. Or the njarka is used in traditional music for healing and to call the jinn, the spirits of the river, for all kinds of purposes–to get people in a trace, to heal people, to bless the crop or play for rain or whatever.”
Significantly, this unique musical merging was first validated in Mali among the players themselves, and then in public performances, including one in a public market in Timbuktu, which is featured in the film. “The people who had come into the market that day, they had honestly never seen anything like that–a toubab, as white people are called there, playing live music, and certainly not with their traditional musicians.”
The resulting hybrid defies definition.
“A lot of people have said, ‘What is this, what do you call it?’ James admits. For American performances, he presents it as “Desert Blues,” a title that begins to evoke the music’s transcultural melding. In this rare Nov. 3 return to his home turf, James will perform with Mamadou Sidibe, an acknowledged master of the kamele n’goni; Amadou Camara, who plays both the calabash and the three-stringed bass called bolon; and Karamba Dioubaté on calabash and djembe, a goblet-shaped, skin-covered hand drum. The East Bay’s didgeridoo ace, Stephen Kent, will also sit in. All this swirls around James’ spare guitar and gruff, half-whispered vocals, which alternate verses in English and Sorai, one of Mali’s dozen or more dialects.
Within the five-note pentatonic scale the ancient instruments employ, and the emphasis on cadence, which James defines as “a melodic rhythmic segment that repeats itself,” the music is ethereal and hypnotic, exotic and transcendent. Even for the musicians themselves.
“That’s a very mysterious thing,” James muses, “because it sometimes seems that there’s no rhyme or reason to which shows really transcend. Some of my African friends will say things like, ‘Well, the jinn visited us tonight.’ Or they will say, ‘I felt my heart open tonight.’ For me, that’s what you’re always looking and hoping for. I honestly think of it as getting lucky.”
Markus James appears with the Wassonrai, including Mamadou Sidibe, Amadou Camara, Karamba Dioubaté, with special guest Stephen Kent and Senegalese singer-songwriter Guelel Kumba, and Afrissippi with Kinney Kimbrough and Justin Showah on Friday, Nov. 3, at the Sebastopol Community Center. 390 Morris St. 8pm. $13-$15. 707.823.1511.