Corey Harris is adept at combining contemporary sensibilities with traditional country blues forms in a manner so natural that the cracks and fissures between now and then never seem to show, an accomplishment he expands on Mississippi to Mali to include two continents. Again, the music flows so naturally that the bridges and welds that join the African and African-American traditions on this record are never obvious, creating a seamless, wonderful album. The tracks were recorded live in the field, an approach that strengthens the intimate feel here, and there are numerous high points, including Africanized versions of Skip James' "Cypress Grove Blues" and Robert Petway's "Catfish Blues" that open new dimensions in each song without altering its original intent and tone. A version of "Sitting on Top of the World" (called "Station Blues" here) with the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, and featuring Shardй Thomas, the 12-year-old granddaughter of Othar Turner, is a particular delight in its ramshackle exuberance. Mississippi to Mali closes with a credible and moving take on Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground" that spotlights Harris' considerable acoustic slide skills. This is another fine album from a player whose reverence for the blues doesn't keep him from instilling the form with both joy and innovation.
- Steve Leggett (All Music Guide)
Music has dominated Corey Harris's life since childhood, when he was playing instruments and singing at every opportunity. Growing up in Colorado and Maine, his first direct acquaintance with the Black Continent dates back to a 1991 journey to Cameroon. After that Harris returned to his New World roots, making a living as a rural teacher in Louisiana and moonlighting as a New Orleans street musician. Following his 1994 recording debut, he has consolidated his reputation as a blues revivalist, "invoking the ghosts of Robert Johnson, Lightin' Hopkins and Howlin' Wolf." He rose to such acclaim that Martin Scorsese used Harris in his film Feels Like Going Home. Mind you, this man is not even 35 years old.
Although the versatile Corey Harris is the driving force behind Mississippi to Mali, it is not his achievement alone. On this album he is joined by a number of other musicians. But the cast he has been able to assemble serves only as further confirmation of his status as an acclaimed blues man. Apart from fellow Americans Sam Carr and Bobby Rush, Harris has secured the participation of a Malian musician of almost mythic proportions: Ali Farka Toure, Africa's "John Lee Hooker." In addition, guitarist Ali Magassa and percussionist Souleyman Kane signed on as well. But one of Harris' most unique collaborators is Sharde Thomas, granddaughter of Otha Turner (1907-2001), the legendary leader of the Rising Star Fife & Drum Band. This 13-year-old musical prodigy sings and plays on two of the CD's tracks: "Back Acha" and "Station Blues."
Mississippi to Mali totals 15 numbers. We set out on our musical odyssey with "Coahama," with a guitar intro by Corey Harris, followed by "Big Road Blues," which also features Sam Carr and Bobby Rush on drums and harmonica. This is still vintage Delta blues. On "Special Rider Blues," Mali makes its entrance as Toure joins with the one-string violin called njarka and Souleyman Kane takes care of the percussion accompaniment. For this Kane uses a West African calabash. This venture is continued on "Cypress Grove," which I find one of the most intriguing fusions of American blues and traditional West-African music. "Tamalah," "Rokie" and "La Chancon des Bozos" are three arrangements from Toure's own artistic heritage, with which he takes center stage as Harris steps out of the limelight to provide backing vocals and guitar. On "Njarka" Toure and Kane go it alone with a purely African instrumental number.
With "Mr. Turner" it is back to the Mississippi again: here Bobby Rush gets a chance to show off his virtuosity on the harmonica. More menacing is the penned-up anger of the 1929 classic ".44 Blues." One of the most outstanding pieces of this album, however, is "Charlene," a subdued song in French with very distinct African overtones and subtle vocals by Harris.
Mississippi to Mali is an amazing CD, leaving the listener wondering who influenced whom and whether the album could not have been titled "Mali to Mississippi"? But let's leave this as an issue for musical genealogists to worry about. What both blues lovers and world music aficionados can learn from this project is the remarkable compatibility of musical expressions found on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Once again, here's proof that in spite of mankind's cultural diversity, it is in the artistic realm that we discover our shared humanity.
- Rambles (written by Carool Kersten) published 27 March 2004