Sunday, July 17, 2011

Blues the Healer

Are the blues a cultural universal? We all suffer disappointment, loss and ultimately, the sort of pain from harsh reality that provides the basis of “having the blues.” And if that is true, do we solve our problems in similar ways? More aptly, does music similar to the blues bubble to the surface from geographical areas besides the Mississippi delta, and give us a sense of “get over it”?

Music writers are quick to connect the structural dots, of course, not just between African beats, work songs, field hollers, spirituals and the genesis of the blues, but also between gypsy cante and flamenco, and between sailor songs and Portuguese fado.  That sort of etymological discussion can take place across the globe when it comes to all sorts of traditional music.    

My own understanding of the blues in musical terms got a serious shot in the arm when, in the late 1980s, I was living in Petaling Jaya (PJ), a suburb of Kuala Lumpur (KL), Malaysia, and more importantly, hanging out in various corners of the vibrant local music scene. The live music there in particular was strongly influenced by an American and British invasion, with numerous Filipino bands well established at major hotels, and small bars like All That Jazz, The Longhorn, and Traffic Lights featuring groups that eased through jazz standards, country rock and pop/hard rock respectively.

On the bar circuit at the time was one group of long-haired local talents called The Blues Gang, whose high octave repertoire included a fistful of rock-based originals sung in Malay along with numerous well rendered tunes from the American-British blues rock songbook, from the likes of Muddy Waters and Jimi Hendrix to Eric Clapton and Cream.  Having been a rock head in my youth back in the US, I was quick to get on the party train a la the Blues Gang in Kuala L’impur (Andre Gide’s words, not mine).

In the same era I also frequented a hole-in-the-wall stereo shop in the now defunct Asia Jaya mall. There my buddy Kim, the well-informed and UK-refined Chinese owner, sold state of the art audio equipment while possessing what must have been the best collection in the Klang Valley of recordings on the new CD format, which he would happily expound upon and then loan out for a small fee.  It was on Kim’s recommendation that I borrowed the Deutsche Grammophone recording of the San Francisco Symphony doing Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” Bernstein’s “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story,” and a piece I had never heard before, William Russo’s “Street Music: A Blues Concerto.”

A blues concerto, on blues harp no less? Completely plausible, I remember thinking. Not long before listening to and being blown away by Russo’s ode to the blues, I’d been in Cee Jay’s in central KL, listening to the Blues Gang cranking out a fast-paced rocker together with local harp maestro Rafique Rashid wailing away, when I suddenly realized the power of that tiny ten-holed instrument, bent to tasteful effect with a bout of the blues.  

Having the blues is undoubtedly a cultural universal. Being a fan of blues perhaps less so. But until you've given listening to the blues a chance, whether on CD or in a bar or on the back porch, don't judge. You don't know what you're missing.

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