Harris spans globe for evolved sound

Dave Rossetti

Be forewarned: Corey Harris’s Mississippi to Mali was not intended to be heard by a mass audience.

Though it sounds odd for any recording artist to knowingly release an album with limited appeal, especially one of Harris’ growing reputation, it’s clear that Harris had bigger desires than impressive record sales in mind when he planned out this CD.

The veteran acoustic bluesman drew the inspiration to record this album from his involvement in Martin Scorsese’s recent PBS series, “The Blues.” Harris hosted the first episode, a look at the African-rooted music that was the early precursor to American blues, became intrigued by it and set about to explore the links between his genre of choice and traditional African music — even traveling to Mali in search of answers.

Flinging commercial appeal to the wind, Harris has given us Mississippi to Mali, a musical log of his journey that reaches so far back into history in terms of its sound that it would be out of place in most record store “blues” bins. Even so, music fans interested in finding something unique need look no further than Harris’ latest offering — few as those people may be.

Harris starts off Mali with “Coahoma,” a fast-picked country-blues instrumental featuring only his acoustic fretwork. After delivering minimalist renditions of “Big Road Blues” and “Special Rider Blues” he then slowly begins to venture into the “Mali Tracks” and temporarily ventures headlong across the Atlantic.

On Mali’s fourth track, “Tamalah,” what Harris’ trip has taught him can no longer be hidden. He takes a back seat to his teachers, letting African guitarist Ali Farka Toure’s traditional language vocals and Souleyman Kane’s percussion establish the mood that saturates the album. Initially jarring, the interplay on “Tamalah” should prove fascinating for fans willing to let their guard down.

After more bouncing between traditional West African tunes and historic American blues tunes, things really begin to get interesting as Harris begins fusing the two styles. Harris gives Toure free reign to use his njarka (a one-string violin) to provide the backdrop to his raspy vocals on Skip James’ “Cypress Grove” and presents a fife-heavy “Back Atcha” with the help of Sharde(accent mark goes here) Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. He also manages to deliver stirring cuts of “.44 Blues” and “Catfish Blues” with nothing but his raw vocals, acoustic guitars and Kane’s percussion.

Fittingly the album’s highpoint, “Charlene,” comes toward the end of Mali — after Harris has tied all of the lose ends together. Harris sings in French, Mali’s official language, over his own spellbinding fretwork and the well-timed percussion of Darrell Rose on a track that rewards listeners for sticking with him on his quest of self-discovery with one of the most beautiful musical moments of 2003.

Though a few of Mali’s tracks aren’t too interesting (“Mr. Turner,” “Station Blues”) or up to par with the others (“Njarka”), Harris’ CD carries some real power. Though Mississippi to Mali has a great chance of being instantly relegated to library shelves and use in other music history documentaries, this disc should be a welcome addition to the already diverse collections of adventurous blues and/or world music buffs.

Harris probably recognizes there aren’t too many of those types of fans out there, but my guess is he’s perfectly content knowing he was able to serve as tour guide for one unusual ride.

Grade: B