Ahead of a performance at the Wellington Jazz Festival this week, Otis Taylor talks blues with BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM.

*   *   *

OTIS TAYLOR has had a unique career path. The Colorado based singer-songwriter is coming to the capital for the Wellington Jazz Festival, and his critically lauded blues work is quite something. He attempted to forge a musical career in the blues in the ’60s and ’70s, but gave up in 1976 when he failed to make an impact. He left to become an antiques dealer, and an amateur track cycling coach. However, he came back in the ’90s. Taylor says “I had no intentions of going back to music. A friend of mind asked if I could put a band together for an opening of his coffeehouse. All of a sudden, I was back in again.”

He hasn’t looked back since, releasing a steady cavalcade of excellent albums. He’s been particularly prolific in the last decade, and gained some considerable acclaim for his hard-hitting 2001 album White African. While his career has contained little to no duds, his 2005 album Below the Fold and last year’s Recapturing the Banjo stand out.

Taylor has achieved arguably more success in Europe than in the States, in some respects mirroring the traditional blues success in Europe. After all, it was the British youth (The Beatles, The Stones, The Kinks etc. etc.) who brought the ’50s blues into the mainstream. Taylor says “I had a strong agent in France who was very excited about my music and well-connected. I think all people love the blues, no matter what country they are in.” Taylor’s blues and banjo playing are as much influenced by 20th century West African blues traditions as they are from US traditions. Of course, the blues itself is derived from West Africa, but the trance of tracks such as ‘Shakie’s Gone’ from Truth Is Not Fiction sound as if contemporary West African influences play a huge role in Taylor’s musical exploration – something with which Taylor agrees.

“I have a favourite question of my own, ‘What if the greatest blues musician hasn’t even been born yet?’ There’s more pain in the ghetto now than there ever was. There are more black men incarcerated than ever. There is still plenty of material for writing the blues.”

As most people are aware, the blues derived from slave communities, and gained prominence in the ’20s and the ’30s. I ask Taylor if the blues resonate as much as they did back in the ’20s, especially considering the demographic shifts in who actually listens to the blues. Taylor says “African-Americans weren’t allowed to say what they wanted to. If they did, they would be lynched. I have a favourite question of my own, ‘What if the greatest blues musician hasn’t even been born yet?’ There’s more pain in the ghetto now than there ever was. There are more black men incarcerated than ever. There is still plenty of material for writing the blues.”

Taylor has also publicly discussed the way in which bluesmen and singer-songwriters have adopted racialised discourses. For example, singer-songwriters carry connotations of “whiteness”, “alternative”, “alt. country” and are frequently given more status in canonical debates. However, players of the blues, are seen as “black”, and are rarely regarded as “singer-songwriters” despite a) there being little difference and b) most singer-songwriters have just carried on blues traditions. Taylor says “it persists. It’s been institutionalised. I don’t know if it will change. They still call Keb’ Mo’ a bluesman. He’s a balladeer, all the way.” Given popular music’s construction along racial divides and cultural marginalisation, Taylor doesn’t appear to be particularly optimistic about it ever changing. “Yes there are still racial divides, and that’s the way it is. And I do not believe that Elvis is the king of rock and roll.”

Taylor’s last album, Recapturing the Banjo came about from a frustration over the way the history of the banjo had been whitewashed. Contrary to common perception, the banjo is not an instrument originating from Appalachian, or Deliverance-style communities. In fact, the instrument came from Africa, and the instrument was appropriated by “white” blackface minstrel shows to mock “blacks” in the nineteenth century – consequently, many “black” artists stopped using the banjo. Taylor says “in 1999, I did a banjo workshop in Port Townsend, Washington, with John Jackson and Alvin Youngblood Hart. I knew I should do a record with all of these amazing blues musicians who played banjo. Although I had been playing banjo since I was fifteen-years-old, I didn’t even know that the banjo came from Africa until about fifteen years ago.”

Taylor has a strong reputation for his politically motivated stories. He’s never preachy or simplistic with his story-telling either – and he talks about the exploitation of ethnicities other than African-Americans and the ill-treatment of particular labour movements in his music. An example is the Ludlow Massacre, where twenty people (including eleven children) were killed by the Colorado National Guard attacking striking mine workers in 1914. Taylor says however, “I’m not trying to preach to anyone. I’m from Colorado and the Ludlow Massacre is well-known here. I’m just trying to tell interesting stories – in the tradition of the African griot.” He’s often been seen as a dark artist. However, Taylor says “I just finished my album of love songs. It will be released in June and it is called Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs.” Irish guitarist Gary Moore, jazz pianist Jason Moran, jazz trumpeter Ron Miles are featured on the record.” But the last thing Taylor would ever be accused of is being staid or conservative. He’s a fascinating player (guitar, banjo, mandolin, and harmonica) and doesn’t pull any punches with his compelling material. He says “I’m just a born outlier, no matter what I do. I rode a unicycle, I played rugby, coached a bicycling team. There are not a lot of black antique dealers, either.”