Andrew H. Walker, Getty Images Nine days after the deadly tornado that touched…
- Posted on Jun 23rd 2009 2:00PM by Steve Hochman
That'd be Bo as in Diddley, of course. AKA Ellas McDaniel, the rock 'n' roll architect who passed away last year. And did he know that the famous beat that came to have his name on it -- clap along: duh-duh-duh DUH DUH ... the engine driving 'Hey, Bo Diddley,' 'Bo Diddley Was a Gunslinger,' 'Who Do You Love?' ... perpetuated by Buddy Holly in 'Not Fade Away,' Johnny Otis with 'Willie and the Hand Jive,' Bruce Springsteen with 'She's the One,' U2 with 'Desire' (just to touch on a very long list) -- originated in West Africa?
Sure, that's old news. As well-documented in various musicological explorations such as Ned Sublette's fascinating music-and-so-much-more book 'The World That Made New Orleans,' the beat moved with the slave trade from Africa through Haiti and then New Orleans' Congo Square and out as the "juba" through the Mississippi Delta and, eventually, up to Chess Studios in Chicago.
But did Bo know?
"I don't know," says English guitarist Justin Adams, on the phone from his London home. "That's a question for the history of culture. These are fascinating questions."
But it's a question he and an actual West African, the Gambia's Juldeh Camara, griot and master of the one-stringed ritti fiddle, address on their new album, 'Tell No Lies.' The collection more or less imagines Bo Diddley and such other blues-to-rock transformers as Muddy Waters as being very much aware of the musical roots from which they flowered. Take a listen to 'Kele Kele (No Passport No Visa),' one of the album's keystone tracks:
Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara, 'Kele Kele (No Passport No Visa)'
"I am interested in musicology and music history, and there are a lot of papers about Congo Square and the way drumming was allowed there that was not allowed on the plantations," Camara says. "And this is one of the reasons New Orleans music sounds different, more the longer, syncopated lines, what became the Bo Diddley beat. These are fascinating questions."
Okay, so maybe the Bo question is up in the air. But here's another:
Did Juldeh know?
A hearty laugh comes through the line when Camara is asked that.
"We don't know about what was rock 'n' roll or blues, what is called funk," he says, also from London, where he lives part-time these days. "But now I am realizing. When I come here, I'm starting to see what that is, where it is from. I heard about Bo Diddley, but didn't know him or his music. When I heard the way he played, I was thinking in my mind, 'Oh, even if he never got to Africa, maybe he heard music all over the world. I believe a lot of the riff is from there. So Bo Diddley either knew a lot of Africa -- or it's automatic."
This album kind of flips the formula of the pair's first album, 2007's 'Soul Science,' which put rock sensibilities to West African sounds, resulting in an approach not so different from the electric Tuareg rebel tunes of Tinariwen. That's not so surprising in that Adams, whose dad's career as a diplomat had the family living in Jordan and Egypt (and Chicago), has produced two Tinariwen albums. That job matched well with his other longtime role in playing lead guitar for Led Zeppelin singer (and major Tinariwen booster) Robert Plant, though the sensibilities and open ears go back to teenage exposure to a wide range of global sounds that started coming through London's Rough Trade Records story in the '70s punk years.
"In the last 10 years I've done many trips to Mali to be with Tinariwen," Adams says. "Times I spent with them really got rid of any kind of angst I had about playing with African musicians. Just got on with them and spent enough time playing with African musicians that it became natural."
But he was never interested in just recreating African sounds in his own recordings. And at the same time he has a strong disdain for the "coffee table music," as he calls much of the smoothing out that has happened with Westerners trying to approach African-based music.
"I was glad that people had understood with the first record that we were in a way taking the spirit of early rock 'n' roll and blues, and that rawness, and mixing it with some really deeply African things," he says. "So we thought we'd be more daring and push that combination further."
First step was to give Camara a primer on where and how the beat had proliferated around the world.
"I made a reference CD for this album," Adams says. "It had the Clash on it, had Led Zeppelin on it. Had the Stones. Also Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters. But also some fantastic recordings of '70s Senegalese and Nigerian music, and some of the Konono 'Congotronics' things. Music that was recorded in wild, overloaded ways. Those are the things -- things that really swing, have a raw edge to them."
And even with the Western rock items, it wasn't always the obvious hits.
"For the Clash I really like the 'Sandinista' era," he says. "Something about the gung-ho, put-overdubs-on, not overly careful approach. I love 'Bank Robber,' which wasn't on 'Sandinista' but was that era when they were immersing themselves in dub and going quite extreme. The Stones track is one I love on 'Exile on Main St': 'I Just Want to See His Face.' Love the studio ambiance of that track, the syncopation. Has a really Dr. John feel, lots of congas. Zeppelin was 'Black Dog.' The reason is I was thinking of call and response, such an African thing. I knew Juldeh would respond to that, and I wanted to take that a little further, idea that a rhythm might start and start again. In Morocco, street musicians will stop for a while and talk, and then the rhythm starts up again -- bang! I was thinking of that."
And rounding it out were the African selections:
"Pretty much unknown things," Adams says. "Some things from a fantastic compilation on the Soundwave label, 'Nigeria Special.' Also got a nice CD called 'Golden Afrique' or something like that, lots of fantastic recordings of 1970s Senegalese things, stuff like that. And recordings of Tuareg drumming."
So what did Camara think of all this?
"Chan chan chan CHAN CHAN," Camara chants, mimicking one of the rhythm variations that threaded through the disc Adams gave him. "I listened to that."
He listened. And he processed what he heard. But he didn't take the CD as an instruction manual but more as a scene-setter, as Adams intended.
"When I hear that, just like when someone plays -- I hear you and do my thing," Camara says, whistling a tune to illustrate. "So you don't tell me what to play. I have to listen and do what I hear. I write with him some of the time, some I bring the melody, some I bring the riff and he brings me something. Tuning his guitar, I hear a tune in that and make it my song! What?"
And another hearty laugh comes across the line.
Well, maybe that's how it happened. Maybe not. In any case, you can hear a result a bit different from 'Kele Kele' on the song 'Achu,' which puts Camara's melodic playing to the fore:
Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara, 'Achu'
And thought it was Adams who set the goal for 'Tell No Lies,' Camara gladly held up his end of the work.
"Of course it was more of a job than 'Soul Science,' " Camara says. " 'Soul Science' is the way we play back home -- make a big fire from a big tree, go out in the evening to play without knowing which songs. That was for 'Soul Science.' This one is more playing the music. That's what makes the difference. Used to play without tuning. We didn't realize we didn't tune! 'Soul Science' was my lesson. But this is mine. This is Justin and mine. This one I'm really growing now. This is mine more than 'Soul Science.' And after this one even more. We can talk something else again."