Markus James has travelled to Timbuktu to unlock the secrets of the blues and found a connection between what he heard in the deserts of Mali to the fife and drum music of northern Mississippi. Like Corey Harris and the Dickinson brothers, James” preoccupation with exploring the drum-based blues of North Mississippi has led to an album that is interesting, compelling and entertaining.
The California-based James has worked for years with Africans, particularly from the Wassoulou and Songhai regions of Mali, to produce his fascinating musical projects. James” passion for West African music began with his first trip to Niafunke, Mali in 1994. Initially following in the footsteps of Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal, James has continued to incorporate African rhythms and sounds into his music. Some outstanding of his work include Nightbird in 2003 and Snakeskin Violin in 2008.
But for Head For The Hills, James remained stateside, excloring the close cousin of Malian blues – traditional rhythm-based blues music of North Mississippi. With this project, James explores territory familiary to followers of Luther Dickinson and North Mississippi Allstars and Corey Harris. Dickinson and brother Cody were enthusiasts of the North Mississippi blues traditions of Otha Turner, Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside, and best online casino Dickinson produced a collection of Turner”s work in 1998. The fife and drum style of North Mississippi blues is a reference point frequently incorporated into North Mississippi Allstars” music. Harris”s connection to the North Mississippi grew out of his role in Martin Scorsese”s Feel Like Going Home, an installment of Scorsese”s 2003 film project – The Blues. Harris drew from that experience talking and playing with artists in Mali and North Mississippi to put together his own brilliant 2003 recording project, Mississippi to Mali, on which he worked with artists from both regions, including the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, which featured Turner”s granddaugher Sharde Thomas (who has also guested on a couple of NMA projects).
With Head For The Hills, because of James” adoption of the drum-based, gritty, low-fi blues of North Mississippi, several of the pieces are reminiscent of North Mississippi Allstars – a raw and visceral sound that seems almost subversive in its lack of polish. But James makes the project work with tremendous guitar skills, occasional harp playing and vocal prowess. Each of the tracks features James and a drummer (or hambone or bucket percussionist) – and that”s it. There are some excellent tracks on the album, including both an acoustic and an electric version of the title tune (the acoustic version is included in this post), an outstanding instrumental “Speepyhead,” and “Candyland Refugee.” But every track on the album is solid, and James” guitar work and that of the accompanying drummers is superb. James” guest drummers include Kinney Kimbrough (son of Junior Kimbrough), Calvin Jackson (who played with R.L. Burnside among others), Aubrey “Bll” Turner, R.L. Boyce and Marlon Green.
Audio Stream: Markus James, “Head for the Hills”
About the author: Bill Wilcox is a roots music enthusiast recently relocated from the Washington, DC area to Philadelphia, PA and back again.