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Form of music

Bring on the blues


HALL OF FAME: BB King who introduced a style of soloing that influenced many electric blues guitarist

The Blues was invented in 1912!

Ridiculous ! A statement that's preposterous in fact, intent and definition. The blues, as a form of music, really has no founder nor place or date of origin. Nothing that can be nailed down with any level of authority and accuracy, at least. It essentially coalesced from the plaintive expressions of melancholy of African Americans slaving under oppressive conditions through the 18th and 19th centuries.

The authoritative Rolling Stone magazine once rightly defined blues as a 'distillate of African music brought over by slaves'. The chants and songs of labourers as they toiled on sun-drenched plantations and as railroads crews, or languished in jail or even death row. From another tangent, early Negro spirituals have had as much of a seminal bearing. The early-day work songs came to be known 'field hollers' or 'slave shouts'. Unfashionable and uninspiring origins to what has evolved into one of music's most popular genres.


Most popular and influential too. Because much contemporary Western-origin music traces back to, or draws inspiration from, traditional blues. Later-day Jazz, R&B, Gospel, Soul, Folk, Country and even Rock 'n' Roll can be linked to the Blues root.
Given the slavery connection, the African continent can well be called the cradle of blues. Some music historians have seen linkage between several blues elements and the music of Central and Western Africa, especially Mali - although any attempt to pinpoint it geographically, or even conceptually, will always prove futile.

And so it was the 'distillate' that really gave the concept of blues substance and purpose. Influenced by the situation of the African American and flavoured by colonial European culture, it slowly evolved into a recognisable form of music.

The evolution reached an inflection point around the early 1900s, such that in 1912, Hart Wand's Dallas Blues became the first ever real blues song to be published on a score sheet. Making 1912 not the origin of the blues, but the formalisation of blues as a genre of music.

2012, where we are at now, could therefore well be celebrated as the centenary of blues!


While the blues has evolved intricately since its slavery roots, some elements still rule. For example, the characteristic repetitive chord progression is a function of the original call-and-response field hollers of slaves, providing the basic blues backbone or groove. Blues lyrics, too, traditionally followed a repetitive pattern;while conceptually reflecting the rant of the singer bemoaning their fate, almost in whiney narrative style. Possibly, because of the depressive, melancholic nature of the lyrics, the term blues was assigned as a point of reference.

Hart Wand may have been first out of the blocks, but it really was WC Handy who catalysed blues from a regional style with limited audience following, into a genre that today flavours almost every form of American-originated music, and effectively, one with near universal influence. It is for this inspiration - and of course technical ability - that Handy is called the 'Father of the blues'. Or, to be fair to the deep antecedents of the genre, at least in its modern form.

The first blues recording by a singer of African descent happened only in 1920 when Mamie Smith covered Crazy Blues. But, if Handy was the 'Father of Blues', the claim of 'Mother of Blues' (and not by marriage) was appropriated by Ma Rainey. Amongst the earliest professional blues singers, her robust vocals and passionate style closely reflected the traditional form. However, the most popular blues vocalist of the '20s and '30s was, arguably, Bessie Smith. A blues legend with a telling influence on Jazz, she was aptly nicknamed the 'Empress of the Blues'.


With the passage of time, sub-genres began to sprout. Country blues was made popular by exponents such as Bo Carter, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lonnie Johnson. Sylvester Weaver's unique knife-fretted sound gave rise to the slide guitar style that characterised what became known as the Delta Blues. As opposed to the rural country blues, the more refined style evolved into Urban Blues.

Conceptually, anything could create to the next categorisation. So, innovation was at play through unconventional instruments in the Memphis Blues style. Boogie-woogie became popular in the '30s, and along with Big Band Blues, blended into the rage of the '40s - Jump Blues. This style, marrying sax and brass to guitar, is seen as the seminal precursor to R&B and Rock 'n' Roll. The arrival of electric guitars led to the creation of Electric Blues, which sunk solid roots in Chicago around the '50s - in effect, giving rise to the institutional Chicago Blues.

Post War socio-economic sifting, which saw a never before affluence come into the black community, developed Rhythm 'n ' Blues (R&B ) into a huge commercial proposition. A new generation of blues musicians emerged out of the Chicago scene. Many, a result of the great migration, brought with them the distinctive Mississippi style. Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Howlin' Wolf and Jimmy Reed went on to become legendary blues figures.


By now, some deviations of blues had metamorphosed enough to be almost unrecognisable from the origins. Along came Bo Diddley, Bill Halley, Chuck Berry and the king of them all, Elvis Presley... the transition from Blues to R&B and Rock 'n' Roll was now consummated.

Yet, mainline Blues continued to evolve and flourish. The likes of BB King and T-Bone Walker fused Jazz into very bluesy guitar work - through complex stringbends and vibrato, virtually making their guitars 'talk'. Improvisation that pioneered a new style - and influenced subsequent and popular guitar heroes like Eric Clapton, George Harrison and Jeff Beck.

As the British invasion-led Rock 'n' Roll mania made the sixties its own, blues still solidly held on to its territory. In a reversal of roles, blues-stanced bands comprising primarily white musicians attracted a hitherto reluctant audience to the genre - young white fans. The Rolling Stones, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, The Yardbirds, Cream, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and Fleetwood Mac were the links between the two dominant styles of the decade.

Rock's greatest axemen Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen and even the pioneers of metal, Led Zeppelin, have all created magic using a blues foundation. Meanwhile, the likes of BB King, Albert Collins and John Lee Hooker kept the unadulterated sound of blues alive. Inspiring the next generation of true-blues like Buddy Guy and Taj Mahal. As late as the '80s, blues was still creating its own merchants - notably Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray.

The blues cause remains alive and kicking thanks to peripheral activities like blues music festivals (Newport, for example), the annual Blues Music Awards and The Billboard Blues Album chart.


While the blues may have originated in America, with strong African influences, its appeal has transcended boundaries and cultures. In India, while it may still lag behind the more universal pop and rock, and far, far behind the local ethnic fare, there is no mistaking that blues enjoys a niche and discerning following, especially in the big metros like Mumbai.

It prompted automobile giant Mahindra & Mahindra to link with the genre, in keeping with its own global worldview. Last year's Mahindra Blues Festival brought down celebrated blues exponents including Matt Schofield, Jonny Lang, Shemekia Copeland and five-time Grammy winning legend Buddy Guy. In between, homegrown talent Soulmate from Shillong, Kolkata's Saturday Night Blues Band and The Luke Kenny Mojo Jukebox lit up the creative sets at Bandra's famous Mehboob Studios in suburban Mumbai.
Come February 2012, and the passion and enthusiasm that local blues buffs showed during least year's two-day experience, has ensured that the Mahindra Blues Festival is now back as a tradition. This year, another star billing returns to the same venue, again in a double-header weekend (Feb 11 and 12) that promises to give blues freaks another out-of-body experience.


Heading the bill, once again, is the man that the revered Rolling Stone magazine slotted at #30 in its 100 Greatest Guitarists of All-time listing - that, across all genres! In a scintillating finale, Buddy Guy, blues' original showman and demigod of the Chicago Blues scene, will jam with pedal steel prodigy Robert Randolph, who modeled his craft on the late virtuoso Stevie Ray Vaughan.
On Saturday, the wizard John Lee Hooker's own son will also be in session, showscasing his phenomenal wares that earned him Grammy and Blues Music Awards nominations. As if that weren't mindboggling enough, the multi-talented Taj Mahal will also take the spotlight with his threepiece act. Add to that, the unexpected blues woman from Belgrade, Ana Popovic, and the domestic but very talented output of Soul Mate, Blackstratblues and Overdrive Trio, and the second edition of the Mahindra Blues Festival will literally ensure that Bandra will be dyed a deep shade of blue. The event is being promoted and managed by Oranjuice Entertainment.


The domestic blues scene may be niche, but it is alive and kicking. Having first found its feet around the late '60s, the blues movement in our part of the world is being pushed by some talented and passionate exponents

Veteran bluesman Peter Isaac still fronts Bangalore-band Chronic Blues Circus which has seen a churn of over 40 members in its 20-year existence. Guitarist Ehsaan Noorani -of the seminal Bollywood music production trio, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy - was introduced to the blues in the '70s. Suitably bitten, he still finds the time to perform with the Kolkata band Saturday Night Blues Band, as he did at last year's Mahindra Blues Festival

Shillong-based Soulmate, poster boys of the domestic blues scene, pull crowds to rival mainstream hard rock and metal live acts, in terms of passion and devotion. While Bangalore-based By 2 Blues - a two-man harmonica-guitar combo - uniquely revisit blues roots in recreating the music as it was played decades ago

It's heartening that blues is finding appeal amongst younger musicians as well. The Local People, Angelo Daimari Band and Overdrive Trio comprise members still in college. Blues Conscience is also making their mark. Mumbai-born New Zealand-based guitarist Warren Mendonsawho has played with rock bands like Zero, currently nurtures his pet project Blackstrat Blues


While the guitar is considered the de facto accompaniment in blues, it is the banjo that preceded guitar's domination. Perhaps a call-back to the strong African roots. However, the harmonica has earned almost synonymous status with the blues;while the piano has also carved its niche, to the extent of having its own sub genre Piano Blues.

Eric Clapton was inspired to create the power-trio concept after watching Buddy Guy's trio perform in 1965. The result was Cream - the first rock supergroup. Clapton would say of his inspiration: 'Buddy Guy was to me what Elvis was for others. '
Despite the genre's inextricable black roots, the first published blues song is credited to Hart Wand - a musician with German lineage. However, African-Americans quickly regained the initiative, with WC Handy - a descendant of former slaves - doing enough to be revered today as the 'Father of Blues'.

Blues has its origins in the plaintive cries of slaves working under severely exploitative conditions on plantations and railroads. Their distinctive call-and-response style bemoaning their fate provided the foundation for the blues style. These work chants were called 'field hollers' or 'slave shouts'.

Over the years, blues metamorphosed into several sub-genres - from sub-genres like Boogie-woogie, Country Blues, Electric Blues and Piano Blues to regional scenes like Chicago Blues, Memphis Blues and New Orleans Blues. Blues has also wielded immense influence over other genres including Jazz, R&B and Rock n'Roll.

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