By Gilbert Garcia
Musicologists often pontificate about the African roots of the blues, but Corey Harris is that rare bluesman who actually felt compelled to explore the connection in his own music.
For his latest CD, Mississippi to Mali, Harris divided the sessions between collaborations with Southern blues players such as Bobby Rush, Sam Carr, and Shardé Thomas (granddaughter of the late Mississippi fife master Othar Turner), and West African musicians such as Ali Farka Touré and Ali Magassa.
Harris came up with the album's trans-continental concept after participating in an episode of Martin Scorsese's PBS series, The Blues. In that episode, Harris is seen making a pilgrimmage to Niafunke, the Saharan hometown of Touré. The bonds he formed there inspired him to return to Niafunke months later with his guitar and a simple recording machine.
Thankfully, Harris' command of traditional acoustic blues is so sure that the project never feels like a dry academic exercise. Primarily working with vintage material like "Big Road Blues," "Cypress Grove," and "La Chanson Des Bozos," Harris conveys the raw grace of an old Alan Lomax field recording combined with the spirit of a world-music collection. It's a sign of how seamless this endeavor is that you occasionally have to check the credits to be sure which songs were done in Mississippi and which were done in Mali.