Graham Reid | | 3 min read
You could say singer-guitarist Eric Bibb had little choice, that he was born to the musical life: his father Leon was a well-known New York folk singer; his uncle was John Lewis, the pianist in the Modern Jazz Quartet; and his godfather was the legendary singer, activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson.
Well, you wonder why he went to university to study Russian and psychology.
"There is actually a reason," he laughs as he speaks from his home outside Helsinki. "At the age of 12 my dad was offered a tour of the Soviet Union, 30 concerts in about as many days, and he decided it was time for the whole family to travel to Europe."
At the height of the Cold War in 1963 this was a rare and unique experience, and it changed the way he saw the world.
"Of course we were guests of the Soviet state and had an interpreter who doubled as... you know. But it was a wonderful experience completely at odds with the indoctrination I had been exposed to as a school kid.
"Our trip was pretty controlled but it opened my eyes and when I went to university years later I thought, 'why not study Russian?' But wasn't a very good student and left Columbia University and went busking in Europe."
As an aspiring singer-guitarist there wasn't a supportive musical climate in the States - by 1970 rock bands had all but wiped out the folk scene - and Bibb wanted "to experience myself in another context other than the racially charged atmosphere of the 60s in the States".
"I grew up in a suburban community playing basketball on the block, but I'd had this whole other dimension in my world which was exhilarating but also strange. I was aware my life was similar on one level but also very different."
Bibb's musical journey really began when he moved to Stockholm where he befriended people who knew the rich history of pre-war American blues and Americana. The distance from his homeland allowed him to see it more clearly.
"I got to understand the European view of America which came without the traumatic emotional baggage associated with day-to-day life in the States. You could isolate the things that were truly treasurable."
What he rediscovered were rural blues, deep veins of folk music and the gospel tradition. Gospel has informed much of his music but is almost written out of large parts of American culture and music.
"America has a way of cartoonising its most valuable cultural contributions and gospel has a rich tradition. But there is a commercial agenda which is so acute in American musical life that what ends up pushed to the fore is a pretentious distillation of the culture. So gospel, like the blues, has a weird name in America and that's a shame because it's a beautiful tradition.
"There is a lot going on with gospel, the church tradition, and the blues which is the secular and profane part. There has been a wedge driven between the two and I'm interested in letting people know it is one culture and one people, everybody lives in the world but deals in the spirit at the same time."
In 1964 when he was a teenager there was a World Fair in New York and a friend bought an album of kora music ("on see-through yellow vinyl") from the African pavilion. The sound of the kora, a string instrument like an oversized lute, had an instant impact.
"It was a total revelation because it seemed immediately familiar, like some kind of soul memory. Since then I have listened to kora music and I find its echoes in some of my favourite southern blues gentlemen like Mississippi John Hurt. When I hear this music my soul revels, these Mali musicians feel like kin."
Bibb, now 57, has recorded with Bonnie Raitt and gospel-inspired singer Ruthie Foster on his new album Get On Board, but has previously played with Taj Mahal, Guy Davis, Odetta, Wilson Pickett and Charlie Musselwhite. He recorded an album with his father, did a tribute to Robeson, and has interpreted songs by Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and old blues masters.
Curious about other cultures, he was originally scheduled to just play the Wellington Jazz festival but has enthusiastically peppered in five other dates.
"New Zealand has been in my sights since I have been going to Australia. I have connections and friends there, and I always want to meet my tribe wherever I go.
"And I feel like a lot of them are out there."
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