The blues has long been about storytelling, about raising a voice from the margins and edges of American life. As it spread from the Deep South to Chicago and beyond, the blues incorporated a powerful musical groove which has influenced music around the world. Now, musicians are reaching across the Atlantic and finding that they have a common story to tell in shades of blue. Putumayo's African Blues chronicles the return of the blues to its African motherland. It also demonstrates the burgeoning connections between West and East African musicians and performers from the blues traditional heartland in the U.S., as well as converts in Europe and shows how these connections are revolutionizing traditions on both continents. Taj Mahal, together with the Culture Musical Club of Zanzibar, gets down and deep in a slow-burning meditation on the beauties of Dhow Countries. Mali's Issa Babayogo brings his characteristic, sparkling knack for gritty, melodic grooves. The ever-evolving Playing for Change band this time featuring hip desert rockers Tinariwen and Keb Mo reveals how globally malleable a good old 12-bar blues can be. And as always, the collection is filled with engaging new discoveries like hard-hitting Tuareg singer-songwriter Amar Sundy, unfolding and grooving collaborations like the Belgian-Malian project Kalaban Coura and the unexpected blend of Mali Latino. 'It's like two halves of a circle', muses Putumayo head Dan Storper, a passionate collector of music from around the world. 'The blues roots are in Africa but emerged and evolved as a powerful musical style in America. Now they re reuniting in new and exciting ways.'
I have to hand it to the Putumayo label. Since it started as a soundtrack-provider to a clothing store in the early '90s, the operation has placed racks of CDs with friendly-primitivist art by Nicola Heindl into Starbucks and Whole Foods everywhere. Putumayo is as responsible as anything for making music buyers ask 'Where's the world music section?' in shops or online. Unfortunately, way too many Putumayo anthologies, even when they have promising themes, are too sweet, tame and too satisfied with murmuring in the background which makes them hard to enjoy in a setting without a cash register.
There are several exceptions, of course. But what makes Putumayo Presents African Blues particularly fascinating is that it's a type of frequently attempted fusion that often ends up drab. I would describe this set as delicate, airy, sure-footed and strong all the way through.
The blues sounds to me like a profoundly American music, and to make too much of its connections to African modes is both dubious and even obnoxious. What cannot be denied is that many African performers are open to playing with foreign musicians who have a different style. On occasion, the efforts click as well as they do here. The tracks collected for Putumayo Presents African Blues are wisely varied in that the collaborations are often just vaguely bluesy, though two or three offer quite explicit blues flavor.
Blues back to Africa and blues out of Africa is a longstanding theme singer and guitarist Johnny Copeland oversaw a delightful meeting in 1985 called Bringing It All Back Home. But the modern originator of the international bluesman has to be Taj Mahal. He delivers a highlight of the African Blues collection smack in the middle with the only track in English, 'Dhow Countries.' It's a survey-the-landscape-and-the-people narrative blues with the Culture Musical Club of Zanzibar. But it feels like a panorama of the Mississippi Delta.
Putumayo Presents African Blues hangs loose about what unifies blues and Africa, which may be no more than forceful handclaps, seductive repetitions and tart guitar tones. Best to keep the subject matter broad, as well: Titles include 'Camel Shuffle,' 'Mali' and 'Groove in G.' I'm not sure how many more cuts by any of these collaborators would work, but that's the beauty of single-track greatness as a format assemble enough, and you have an album's worth of lovelies. --Milo Miles, NPR Fresh Air