Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A Good Week for the Blues

This year’s Port Townsend Acoustic Blues Festival was hot.
Not only was this the case with the music played by this year’s faculty, but so was the weather. Some days started out overcast, but by afternoon the sun’s appearance sure helped keep spirits high.

As usual, building 204 was the place to be. Afternoons and nights would find a jam happening on the back porch. Someone would pull out a guitar or mandolin and one-by-one others would join in and soon the air was filled with the sound of fiddles, harmonicas, guitars, washboards, mandolins, and voices -- all coming together to form a melody that would draw more people.

There were some new additions to the year’s festival, the most mentionable one being the appearance of Taj Mahal, this year’s headliner. He performed to a sold- out crowd at McCurdy Pavilion on Wednesday, a show opened by third–year artistic director Corey Harris. It was a quick stop for the Taj Mahal Trio, who are currently on tour, but it was greeted with enthusiasm by Port Townsend and the faculty of the festival, many of whom say that Mahal has had a major impact on their Blues Career.

“The guy that was playing here Wednesday, Taj Mahal, is one of my main inspirations,” said Sule Greg Wilson, a percussionist/banjo player on the faculty.
“He was the one that really made me go into old-timey and blues music, from the country blues aspect.”

“Taj Mahal has always been one of my favorites,” said “Washboard Chaz” Leary, “I’ve known Taj for a long time.”

When asked what his favorite part of the festival had been that week, Cheick Hamala Diabate, a faculty member who plays banjo, guitar and the ngoni, a Malian traditional instrument, mentioned Taj Mahal as one of his highlights.

“Taj Mahal went to see my family a couple of times in Mali,” Cheick Hamala added.

Cheick Hamala was another important guest this year. He is a storyteller, historian, and musician in the 800-year-old tradition of the Griot, the storytellers of West Africa. Currently residing in Washington D.C, he grew up in Mali in a family where “all the men play music, and the women sing.”

At a young age, he mastered the ngoni.

“The ngoni is the grandfather of the American banjo,” the Grammy-nominee said. “It has a deep history: When people came from Africa as slaves, they didn’t bring the instrument, but they got the idea to make the banjo in America.”

Cheick Halama added that there are two other main traditional Malian instruments: the kora, a 21-stringed instrument that is the ancestor of the harp, and the balafon, which inspired the keyboard.

On Friday night, he played in a packed Boiler Room. With his colorful traditional Malian robes and hat, black and gray striped dress pants and shiny shoes, along with his ever–present smile, he created a magical atmosphere with his guitar and banjo and songs in his native tongue.

People of all ages came to the festival. There were young musicians, like Jerrone
“Blind-Boy” Paxton, a 23-year-old blues artist from South Central Los Angeles who has been coming here since he was 19. He wowed the audience at McCurdy Saturday as he played the piano, banjo, and guitar. Then there was Nat Reese, an 87-year-old musician from Virginia who has played music since he was a child. He started out playing music in church, and has since played the guitar, as well as the bass viola, concert harp, piano, and organ, among others.
It’s his second year at the festival.

“I’ve enjoyed it really well. Last year was the first time I was here from back northeast, and I’m enjoying it tremendously,” Reese said.

“I’ve always enjoyed the Blues Festival,” said Lightnin’ Wells, a ukulele, harmonica, and guitar player on the faculty. “I’ve been up here probably ten years, and I’m always happy in Port Townsend. It’s the highlight of my year to come up here and be part of the Blues Festival.”

The grounds of Fort Worden grew quiet as people packed up to leave, but many say that they took with them good memories of the past week.

“The Blues Fest is a joy from the first minute we land in Washington to the moment we leave,” said Henrique Prince, a fiddle player and the “lead Billie” of the Ebony Hillbillies, a New York -based string band. “We really had a lot of fun this year, and learned a lot.

Cheick Halama Diabate