Coloradoan Corey Harris chosen for film
Blues musician Corey Harris happened upon the opportunity of a lifetime by random chance: He was chosen as the protagonist for an episode of the landmark PBS documentary “The Blues,” directed by Martin Scorcese.
“From what I’ve been told, one of the runners (from the production company) went into the record store, and they just kind of got me and some other people’s CDs – some of the younger blues players,” Harris says from his tour bus. “I don’t know why they chose me, maybe because I speak French. You really don’t know – with them just going to the record store, it could’ve been anybody.”Blues historianDespite their lack of experience, the production team couldn’t have stumbled upon a better candidate. Harris, who majored in anthropology at Bates College, approaches his music like his university discipline: He applies his scholarly knowledge of blues history and texture and fuses it with his own deft songwriting and nimble guitar playing. The result is something that pays tribute to blues’ past through the creation of something entirely new. The episode, entitled “Feel Like Coming Home,” followed Harris as he traveled from the Southern U.S. to Africa to trace the musical roots of the blues. Harris proved able as both narrator and subject, and his deep familiarity with the blues and fascination with Africa’s dense polyrhythms practically leaked through the television to entrance the viewer. Harris’s enthusiasm as he forged musical bonds an ocean away with African greats like Ali Farka Toure and Habib Koite was utterly contagious.”Just to get to know Ali Farka was nice – but listening to the scales and rhythms (of Africa) and get something out musically, was the best nourishment,” Harris says. “The best part was not the playing, even though he was a great musician. What you learn is he was a great musician because he was a great man. You have to live your life in a correct way, and that informs your music. He had a lot of money in a country where most people don’t even operate with money, but he didn’t live in an opulent way. He knew not to be attached to the things you have – it’s more important to educate and serve the people around you.”Soon after participating in “The Blues,” Harris recorded “Mississippi to Mali,” a tour-de-force blues album that debuted to critical raves. Though you’d expect a musical historian as meticulous as Harris to be a preservationist, he instead allowed his musical discoveries in Africa to guide his own playing style into new territory. On his most recent album, “Daily Bread,” Harris channeled the same influence out of Caribbean music as well as African music. HIs next album, “Zion Crossroads,” is an album of originals that drops in July.”Zion Crossroads is a town in Virginia a couple of exits from where I live,” Harris says. “I can’t say exactly what influences will be on the album, because I’ve been listening to lots of things – Afro-pop of the ’70s, lots of African reggae and some jazz. I don’t listen to the blues that much, actually – I don’t need to listen to the blues to play it.”
Colorado bluesmanThough he currently resides in Virginia, Harris was born and raised in Denver, and he considers his Rocky Mountain upbringing an integral part of the Corey Harris sound.”I love coming back to Colorado – it is different, though,” he says. “It’s cool to come back and be a visitor to home. It’s the same, but at the same time an all a new place. I see buildings that weren’t there before.”Obsessed with musical details till the end, it only takes seconds for Harris to call up the music that historically reminds him of Denver.”Dr. Daddio on KDKL, man,” he says. “You know, you drive around listening to AM radio. 1510 on the dial – that’s what I remember.”The mountains were a large part of Harris’ childhood, and they influence his songwriting even now, though he lives thousands of miles away. “I got a lot of hiking and camping and canoeing in while I lived here,” Harris says. “A lot of that informs my music – you feel it when I play. I definitely give thanks for coming from Colorado.”After leaving Colorado and graduating from Bates College in Maine, Harris taught French in Louisiana and honed his chops on the street corners of New Orleans. Though the song “Mami Wata,” from “Daily Bread,” wasn’t originally written about Katrina, it has morphed into an elegy of sorts for the troubled Crescent City.”I wrote it before Katrina, but it’s about Katrina,” Harris says. “It’s about the water, and the spirits in the water, and flooding. There’s even a rap in there about the breakdown of the canals, which is something I’ve added since Katrina.”
The next frontierAs Harris looks to his next collaboration, he has ambitions set on finding the blues in yet another musical frontier: hip-hop.”There’s a lot to be done in the music that accompanies the rhyme,” Harris says. “DJs have only begun to scratch the surface of what’s out there and what’s possible. I’d love to work with someone who’s got really big ears and is interested in doing something new. That’s what I’d most like to do, but it’d have to be the right (artist), so who knows?”Arts & Entertainment writer Ted Alvarez can be reached at 748-2939 or email@example.com.Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado