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“The title River Music refers to my experience of playing in the band which I feel is like riding on a rushing river. I see each of the songs as something like cups of water from the river of sound.”
If blues musics are to survive this popno-tomorrow-is-already-boring-world it has to mutate and evolve, meander and stretch, and that’s just what Ryan Lee Crosby does with his new album River Music by going forward into the past via India, and Malian desert music tones transmogrified via Mississippi hill country trance/drone vibes.
With a voice that travels a dusty road between the high nasal old-timey tenor of “old weird America” and the warm, cracked leather of Townes Van Zandt, Crosby is not merely an interesting and uncommon singer, but a skilled lyricist, as well. His lyrics for If You Are To Suffer, are far from your typical baby done left me blues trope,“If you are to suffer/ Know you’re not alone, No one in this world makes it on their own, Some are born to struggle, some are born to ease, Some are born to wealth, some to poverty, But one day each of us will be brought to our knees.”
Crosby’s music is engaging and music for listening and traveling by audio. For example, the interplay between instruments on RL Burnside’s Goin’ Down South do well to represent Crosby’s amalgam or mash-up of traditional blues with the intricate, fluid drone of Sahel desert music with non-western tones of droning raga music, but here he’s added Stooges-like saxophone, played by Texan by way of Ethiopia (and no doubt making Stooge saxist Steve Mackay proud) Danny Mekonnen, comes burnished cherry-red and takes Burnside’s hill country groove to a place unimagined by Burnside or anyone else for that matter. Brilliantly assisted by the great harmonicist Jay Scheffler, formerly of Boston’s world-renowned Ten Foot Pole Cats, with Koushik Chakrabarty on tabla, Philip Kaplan on the Gui‘tarode (per Crosby, a fretless modified Stratocaster made to sound like an electric sarod) and Grant Smith on calabash and percussion, Crosby’s outfit brushes the wear and tear off Burnside’s well-worn classic making it delightfully dangerous and menacing again.
Remember the words of Crosby’s fellow Bostonian Ted Drozdowski (now an ex-pat Nashvillian) as you listen: “…authenticity without evolution isn’t authenticity, but mimicry. And not terribly authentic or interesting at all.”
**** Interview with Ryan Lee Crosby ****
RS: Your previous albums show your love of solo country blues. How did your embrace and study of classical Hindustani music and Malian desert music come about, and was there a lightbulb moment where you said, “A-ha!” It’s all connected?
RLC: There was! in 2013, I had one of those “a-ha” moments while listening to
Michael Chapman’s “Thank You PK” off his 1969 album Rainmaker. What he played on that song wasn’t even really blues or raga, but it had a droning slide sound with a suggestion of eastern influences and hearing that was like being struck by lightning. Around that same time, I had also been listening to a lot of RL Burnside and Robert Belfour, alongside Sandy Bull and Robbie Basho. I was also starting to get into 12 string and tuning it down to C, which is where a lot of raga music is played. My 12 string has a wide neck, like a baseball bat, which made me think of a sitar the first time I picked it up… and because a lot of hill country music is played with a single chord, sometimes with bottleneck, I was thinking about modal sounds with slide and it just all came together from there. I started researching blues and raga alongside each other and discovered the Hindustani raga guitar tradition that way. I didn’t get my first Indian slide guitar until a couple of years later, but soon after I found myself sitting at the feet of masters like the late Pandit Buddhadev DasGupta, Pandit Debashish Bhattacharya (my guitar guru who I’m fortunate to see once a year) and the great vocalist Warren Senders, who I study regularly with in Boston.
In 2014, I got to hear Robert Belfour play in front of the Cat Head shop in Clarksdale, MS and that was also very inspiring and educational. Seeing his fingers up close and hearing him in person was an unforgettable experience that directly inspired a number of songs on River Music.
Sometime after seeing Mr. Belfour, I became more curious about African music, which was something that I began to explore about two years ago. And while I have barely even begun to scratch the surface, I have spent a fair amount of time with the music of Boubacar Traoré and that really inspired the approach to River Music. His music is so beautiful and moving. The combination of syncopated rhythms with bittersweet melodies and a gentle, yet driving sound really spoke to me in a way that was like nothing I had ever heard before.
RS: That’s fascinating to me, because I first heard Indian slide guitar around the same time you did and I could hear in that sound beautiful drone similarities to Junior Kimbrough and Robert Belfour, just as I heard the connection between them and Mali’s Ali Farka Toure and other “desert music” artists like Tinariwen, and then hearing Robert Plant and his guitarist Justin Adam’s performance from Mali’s Festival in The Desert in 2003 really sent me down the rabbit hole.
|Ryan Lee Crosby with the great Jay Scheffler|
RLC:: Those are all great connections! I really hear a lot of resonance between Indian slide guitar and Mississippi Fred McDowell’s playing, too. With the droning chords, the slide and the forward sense of momentum, I find that some of his songs sound quite good on the chaturangui. Another piece that really has a foot in each world is “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground.” That really has the qualities of an alap (the opening sequence of a raga) and sounds so natural on a chaturangui. And yes, I also hear overlap between artists like Junior Kimbrough, Robert Belfour, John Lee Hooker and Lightning Hopkins with Ali Farka Touré, Boubacar Traoré, and Tinariwen. There are many more great artists from Mali who have these qualities in their music, too. Have you heard “Mississippi to Sahara” by Faris Amine? He plays a number of American blues standards in the Tuareg style and plays all the instruments, too. Leo “Bud” Welch sings and plays on two tunes, as well. That record was one of my favorites of the last few years.
RS: How difficult has it been to cross between the techniques required to play raga’s and blues, or do the mechanics of both styles just make sense to you as an accomplished guitarist and teacher?
|Student Ryan Lee Crosby with Professor Jimmy Duck Holmes|
RLC:: I have found it tremendously challenging and rewarding to explore the similarities and
differences between raga and blues, from multiple perspectives. As I didn’t grow up with either tradition, on the one hand, I try to understand as best as I can from the outside in… and on the other, I have the opportunity to resonate with both traditions in ways that are really personal. I didn’t play lap style at all when I first became interested in raga… and although there are guitarists out there who can play it with a bottleneck slide, most of my blues playing didn’t involve slide at all, so I really was starting from scratch with the Indian slide guitar. Fortunately, I have had some great teachers in Warren Senders and Debashish Bhattacharya and my own ongoing instincts about what I aspire to achieve, which is something that I think is again very personal and something that is a distillation of all the music that moves me, within and outside of both traditions.
With a few years behind me now, I feel that I’m getting closer in some ways to the sound I hear in my mind, but I think it could take a few more years at least to express it fully as I imagine it now. And something that I love about both the raga and blues traditions is that they are both so deep, it will take more than one lifetime to develop a complete mastery of either tradition in a comprehensive way. So, there will always be something to work on.
For me, raga music has been an especially terrific exercise in patience and humility and in developing the capacity to be at peace in the face of uncertainty. It really requires a sense of faith and trust. But, that is one of many things that I find so appealing about the music – it is helping me to develop personally, as well as musically. I find the values within the music and the discipline that is required to play it as an embodiment of the kind of experience I want to have as a human being and as a spirit.
RS: Hindustani slide guitar as a relatively young history, having only become a thing, from what I can tell because the history is a bit vague, in the mid-nineteen-sixties, and as I understand springing from the same well as all slide guitar: Hawaii. The father or popularizer of the sound and scene, Brij Bhushan Kabra, first heard Hawaiian lap steel guitar and modifying the guitar with, much like a sitar, sympathetic and drone strings. Can you talk a bit about the differences in the instruments like the instrument you play- the Chaturangui, and the Mohan Veena, and the Hansa Veena, and what attracted you to one over the other?
RLC:: Yes, Brij Bhushan Kabra (the guru to both Debashish Bhattacharya and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt), was the pioneer behind Hindustani slide guitar. He modified a Gibson archtop to be played lap style with 3 melody strings and drone strings. I’ve heard Debashish ji talk about Tau Moe and his family as being the link to Hawaii when he came over to perform in India during WWII. And when Debashish ji started as a young guitarist at around 3 years old, he began by learning Hawaiian tunes. So that is still a part of his playing in some respects – he can really get that sound on Chaturangui and on a 6 string lap guitar.
The Mohan Veena also has 3 melody strings, 5 chikari (drone) strings and 12 sympathetic strings, which run underneath the melody strings, like a sitar. This was the instrument that I started with. I found, though, that although this arrangement can work quite well for raga music, it was limiting for the fingerpicking blues style I had already spent years developing,
as playing with alternating bass and monotonic bass lines is a big part of the way that I play. I missed hearing those notes in the lower octave (the Mohan Veena has the equivalent of 4th, 2nd and 1st strings on a 6 string guitar) and so I had mine modified to have all 6 strings typically found on the guitar and that left me with only 2 chikari instead of 5. It worked – the chikari could still be used as a rhythmic drone as it is in raga… but when I met Debashish ji in 2016, I was really impressed by some other differences in his design – he put the chikari strings (two notes an octave apart) in front of the melody strings with two other unison drone strings in the back. This allows for many more rhythmic possibilities in the jor and jhalla sections of a raga performance and it adds a lot to a blues sound, as well. It makes the guitar sound like an orchestra and to my ears, it has a lot in common with a 12 string guitar. The chaturangui also has it’s sympathetics set back from the melody strings, which make them more accessible in performance.
I have never had any direct contact with the Hansa Veena, but I know it is made by Bhabasindhu Biswas, who also makes the Mohan Veena and other stringed instruments in India. And it seems there is an ever-growing list of musicians to discover who have modified guitars for raga music. I recently met Willy Schwarz in Germany, who is an excellent musician and player of the Vichitra Veena (a video of this meeting is on my Instagram page. During that time, he played us a rare record in which he played a modified electric guitar for raga in the 70s. He called it the “Roy Smeck Electric Glide Sitar.” You can hear it in this video at around 13:30.
So that is pretty amazing! Part of what I think is so exciting about these developments with the guitar is the idea of the instrument’s build being yet another extension of the artist’s expression. And there are some really unique visions out there.
RS: You’ve recently returned from a European tour. Could you talk about the band you used on that tour, and how your blues hybrid went over with audiences. Did you have to take any steps to let an audience or bookers know that this might not be their standard blues fare, or is the famously open-minded European music fan willing, as opposed to perhaps the average fan in the U.S., to accept any permutation of blues music without question? Am I being unfair or generalizing about the U.S. blues fan or do you find there to be a difference?
RLC: The band featured Jay Scheffler on harmonica and Grant Smith on calabash and hand percussion. I sang and played 12 string guitar and a Stella 6 string converted for lap style playing. I was happy to let people know in advance that we were going to be presenting our own interpretation of the blues and it seemed that by the time we got there, at least some members of the audience in each city we went to were either expecting it or excited by it once we started playing. I found that pretty much everywhere we went, people listened with open ears and hearts and appreciated hearing something new. I can understand and appreciate the reputation that European audiences have for being great listeners, as that’s generally always been the case for me when I’ve traveled there over the last five years. Most of the time I also find American audiences to be interested in something new and different, but I have found European audiences to be consistently respectful and engaged.
This is a big part of what keeps me going back year after year. It nourishes the soul. As to whether or not there is a difference between US and EU blues fans, I can’t say for sure, but I can say that the tone of the experience for me has been at least a little bit different in each of the cities and towns that I’ve played in around the world, which include Clarksdale, Cambridge, Seattle, Berlin, New York, Amsterdam, Milan, Zürich, Paris, Leuven and Malmö, as well as in the numerous smaller towns in Germany, Belgium, Italy, France, Sweden, Switzerland and the Netherlands. Coming from Boston, but being strongly influenced by music from Mississippi, what I have witnessed firsthand in MS is the naturalness with which the music is presented (and listened to) there, which is perhaps a different vibe from the reverence that the rest of us around the world feel for it. In MS, I have seen and heard it played with a relaxed approach, while everywhere else, most of the rest of us come to it with a more formal enthusiasm. But, again, I can’t say for sure. I’m still learning.
RS:: Boston has had a longterm love affair with blues music, either as straight blues or as a base for other music, I’m thinking of artists like yourself, Peter Parcek, Ted Drozdowski, J. Geils Band, and yes, Aerosmith. Do you have any insight as to why that is, and can you tell me about any new Boston or New England-based blues artists that are making a name for themselves or pushing the blues envelope, or poking the blues bear with a stick, so to speak?
RLC: This list includes some fine players (Ted Drozdowski and Peter Parcek are musicians I love and respect both as artists and people), but there are two other names that come to mind – Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson also grew up here and got started performing in Cambridge in the 60s. And I have to mention the great guitarist Paul Rishell, who taught me songs by Skip James, Charley Patton, Tommy McClennan, John Hurt, Barbecue Bob, Robert Johnson, Robert Wilkins, and Son House, including some picking techniques that House showed Rishell personally. Paul was also quite active on the Cambridge/New England circuit and played with many of these artists and other greats when they came through town. He continues to gig to this day with the superb harmonica player Annie Raines. Cambridge
was a hotspot for the blues in the 60s and 70s. Club 47 (now Passim) was at the center of that and they carry on the tradition still with recent shows by Todd Albright and Blind Boy Paxton. And there are some really fine musicians that are based in the greater Boston area – Danielle Miraglia, Sonny Jim Clifford, Julie Rhodes, Erin Harpe, and Big Jon Short are a few who come to mind. I think roots music, in general, is part of Cambridge’s DNA and there are some really talented folks who know and appreciate the music deeply. In addition, we should also acknowledge Dick Waterman, who was one of the folks who helped “re-discover” Son House and was a major part of the folk scene in 60s’ Cambridge. He helped organize blues concerts here and after locating Son House, he also helped to manage him, along with John Hurt, Skip James, Lightnin’ Hopkins and more. One of his missions was to make sure the artists were all fairly compensated for their work, which has previously not been in the case.
RS: Hey, Ryan! I’m coming over to your house tomorrow to borrow three books, and listen to five records. What will you loan me, and what do you want me to hear?
The Mysticism of Sound and Music by Hazrat Inayat Khan
The Listening Book by W.A. Mathieu
Zen Master Poems by Dick Allen
1 & 2 – Kar Kar and Mbalimaou by Boubacar Traoré
3 – Calcutta Slide Guitar by Debashish Bhattacharya
4 – “Inde Du Nord” series Raga Jog performed by Gopal Krishan on vichitra veena
5 – 22 Strings by Seckou Keita
RS: Thanks, Ryan! This was fun.
RLC: Thanks, Rick! I really enjoyed it.