Nearly 10 years ago, musician Corey Harris was a featured artist and narrator of the Martin Scorcese film “Feel Like Going Home,” which traced the evolution of blues from West Africa to the southern United States.
Harris will soon be the focus of another Public Broadcasting documentary. His live show on Saturday (March 17) at Callahan’s Music Hall in Auburn Hills will be recorded for an upcoming film tracing the journey of the blues genre from its African roots, through the South and into Chicago and reggae music.
“It’s something I’ve been working on for some time, a little less than a year,” Harris said during a phone interview from his home in Richmond, Va. “I was approached by Ron Harwood of Illuminating Concepts to do a video, showcasing my music and my life story.”
Harris, a singer-guitarist-songwriter, was born in Denver to parents from Texas and Kentucky. He began his career as a New Orleans street singer, travelling throughout the southern United States. In his early 20s, he lived in Cameroon, West Africa for a year.
“I wanted to study abroad and see Africa,” Harris said. “I had a friend who had family in Cameroon and he was telling me about the place. That was the first time I heard live African music and that had an effect on me.”
Harwood recognizes Harris as the perfect individual to tell the story of the journey of the blues.
“It dawned on me, as a producer, that it is difficult to find any one entertainer who recognizes his connection to the past and also recognizes his contribution to the future, and who can also speak so eloquently about where the music comes from,” Harwood said. “I’m always fascinated by his really earthy approach of a young man singing music that is, arguably, 100 years old.
“It’s his spirit. You talk about folks with old souls, clearly, even on his records, … he never seems like he is copying anybody, even though he performs tunes that have been done many times before.”
Whether playing solo, in a duo, or with his band The Rasta Blues Experience, Harris performs in a wide variety of styles, including blues, reggae, and New Orleans jazz. He’s performed in venues around the world.
“As a performer, I always have to be aware of what the public wants and what kind of audience I’m playing in front of,” Harris said. “If I’m at a reggae festival, I play reggae. At a blues festival, I play blues. There’s no such thing as a ‘normal’ show.”
His varied repertoire means that Harris is not pigeonholed into one category of music.
“I enjoy that. I think (pigeonholing) is something the music industry uses to marginalize musicians, especially those who play traditional music and especially those who play blues and jazz.”
At Callahan’s, Harris will be performing solo, with his full band (Chris “Peanut” Whitley on keyboards, Gordon ”Saxman” Jones on saxophone, Jayson “Brother J ” Morgan on bass and drummer Kenneth “Trini Joe” Joseph), and as a duo with Harmonica Phil Wiggins, who performed for many years with the late singer-guitarist Bowling Green John Cephus.
“We’ve done a lot of work together since Mr. Cephus died (in 2009),” Harris said. “We’ll play some Piedmont blues as well as a lot of different types of blues. We have a lot of similarities and a lot of differences. We meet in the middle.”
Looking ahead, Harris will perform with Wiggins at the New Orleans Jazz Festival on April 29. He’s also working on another film project, “True Blues,” featuring Taj Mahal, Shemekia Copeland, Guy Davis and Alvin “Youngblood” Hart. A live recording of the “True Blues” show will be held April 22 at the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C.
In December, Harris travelled to Mali to work on a book about the life and music of the late Ali Farke Toure, who was featured in “Feel Like Going Home.”
Harris is a unique performer, with one foot planted in the roots of traditional blues, while the other steps forward into uncharted territory.
“He is representative of the first recordings of this music,” Harwood said. “You can hear the spirit of the fellow of the man who first recorded it and hear Corey’s spirit right alongside. It’s really rare to find that, two voices coming from one.”
Corey Harris will perform an early show at 5:30 p.m. March 17 at Callahan’s Music Hall, 2105 South Blvd. in Auburn Hills. Tickets are $30. For information, click www.atcallahans.com or call (248) 858-9508.
To send info to JB Blues, please email Joe.Ballor@Dailytribune.com