In his latest release ‘Migration Blues’ (2017) Eric Bibb - a 2017 Grammy nominee in the best traditional Blues album category - draws a parallel between the former African-American share-croppers leaving the segregation and misery of the Southern USA for the industrial cities of the North, and the current migratory movement to Europe of the refugees from the Middle East.
Talking about the Blues, it seems more relevant than ever, at least from Eric Bibb’s perspective - a perspective which we subscribe to and we hope to find out more about in this interview...
Welcome to UbuntuFM Mr. Bibb, and thank you for your time. You have quite a career spanning five decades, 36 albums, countless radio, and television appearances and non-stop touring. How did you manage to do this? Are you able to condense this experience into a few lines and share it with our readers?
Looking back I, too, am amazed at the many miles I’ve traveled. The trick to managing the arduous work of touring is probably staying in the moment, enjoying the music and the fellowship. This is what makes it worthwhile and this is what energizes me.
The biography page on your official website describes you as being a ‘progressive preservationist’. Could you throw some light on this description?
The preservationist part of the description has to do with my love of traditional African American folk music; Blues, work songs, spirituals, etc. In addition to working out my own arrangements for existing traditional material, I also write new songs that are inspired by the forms, melodies, and language of older material. I find these older song forms endlessly inspiring and enjoy writing new Blues tunes that remind the listener of older songs.
The progressive part of the description has to do with my inclusion of an eclectic array of modern influences in my writing, as well. In other words, like my older heroes and heroines who reflected contemporary influences in their music, I too make music that reflects what I’m hearing around me.
You come from a family of renowned musicians, singers, and actors. How instrumental was the creative environment you grew up in? Would you consider such an environment always beneficial to one’s career? Might there be limiting factors involved?
The ultra-creative environment that framed my childhood was immensely inspiring. My exposure to experienced musicians and their performances surely made a huge impression on me as I was growing up.
Perhaps the downside of having so many accomplished musicians close at hand is the possibility of feeling intimidated and, as an amateur, feeling like “I’ll never get there”. In general, I would say that I was much more inspired than intimidated. My passion for music was bigger than the self-doubt that every musician experiences at times.
Recently, you were a special guest on the LoveCast radio show with Dave O Rama. The LoveCast is syndicated to UbuntuFM World radio. In the interview with Dave you mentioned the 'values' of the people that surrounded you. Could you share some of these values with our readers?
The first thing that comes to mind is the appreciation of other cultures that was instilled in me, and my siblings, as a child. Being exposed to the music of other cultures from an early age led me to understand how connected we all are and how much common ground we share as human beings, regardless of where we come from.
My parents and many of their friends were actively involved in unionism, the civil rights movement, and the anti-war movement. This concern with creating a better world was passed on to me. This was essentially my preparation for evolving into a citizen of the world.
What made you decide for the Blues and how did your family respond to that?
Another good question! My dad’s involvement in the folk music renaissance of the '50s and ’60s and the important part that New York played in this renaissance meant that I was exposed to the Country Blues of Lead Belly, Big Bill Broonzy, Josh White, Mississippi John Hurt, Reverend Gary Davis, Son House, and many others.
Hearing so much of this music in my formative years has everything to do with me choosing the Blues path as I developed as an artist. While my focus on the Blues was sharpening I also explored other genres; everything from modern Brazilian music to Gospel, Soul, and Jazz.
In the early 90’s I had an epiphany involving the realization that my strengths as a musician were rooted in the African-American folk tradition I’d grown up with. This led to my decision to make a name for myself in the acoustic Blues community. Taj Mahal was a major role model. My parents were pleasantly surprised with my choice and encouraged me to pursue it.
Considering the artistic influence of your family on the one hand and the creative environment of places like Stockholm and other places you have resided, which was the more instrumental to your music? In other words, how influential are 'environmental' factors on writing and producing music?
Certainly, the environment has a huge impact on creativity. When the communal, friendly folk music scene in New York was winding down in the late ’60s, being replaced by more hardcore commercialism, I decided to head for Europe. Landing in Stockholm in the early ’70s, I found a vibrant music scene that reminded me of my Greenwich Village days.
Many musicians I met were familiar with the same music that I loved, collected it, and even played it well. I also think that being away from the States and missing certain aspects of that culture helped me to concentrate on African-American roots music. This was a way to both grow and expand musically and spiritually while maintaining a cultural identity that was so important to me.
In the light of the fact that you are known to be a wandering troubadour, what has been your experience with music and musical artistry on the African continent such as your collaboration with Habib Koité?
My interest in music from the African continent began in earnest at the age of fourteen when I discovered kora music from West Africa. A friend gifted me with a see-through yellow vinyl LP of kora music from Guinea. The music felt so familiar to me. I couldn't get enough of it and continued to seek out kora music on records later when I moved to Sweden.
My first trip to West Africa, after years of listening to its wonderful music, was a visit to Bamako in Mali at the invitation of Habib Koitè. Habib is a great musician – a modern griot. Befriending him and discovering that our musical leanings were compatible brought a huge smile to my soul.
So tell us, on a personal note, is being a wandering troubadour as romantic as it sounds?
Actually, I think it’s both more romantic than it sounds and also less romantic. What I mean by that is this troubadour life at times seems like a wonderful fairy tale and at other times it’s simply really hard work.
The hard part has to do with being overwhelmed by a hectic schedule and having too little time to assimilate what one’s experiencing.
You left your home country at quite a young age and must have encountered some challenges along the way. Would you mind sharing? What would you say to the youngsters out there who might feel the same urge?
Leaving home for any young person is challenging. One quickly discovers one’s own strengths and frailties. Finding yourself in a new culture, surrounded by new customs and unfamiliar language can be very challenging. The music itself is a great ally in these trying situations.
My advice to young musicians with wanderlust is: Stay close to the music! The music will connect you to people who will help you to cope with loneliness and practical hardship, as well.
In "Migration Blues" you draw parallels between African-American history and the current migration issue in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. When we listen to the music as we have read and listened to other interviews as part of our research, the word ‘empathy’ sticks out to us.
Empathy could be translated to ‘humanity towards others’ which is a key attribute to ‘Ubuntu’ from which we have obviously derived our project’s name. For a reason, it is empathy and humanity towards others that interconnects us. Without it we are but seeds blowing in the wind. What is your take on this?
This too is my credo. My experiences traveling around the world and meeting people from different cultures have made it easier for me to see myself in others; easier to imagine myself walking a mile in someone else's shoes. To me, this is the meaning of empathy – feeling connected to other people across cultural borders.
Blues is the creation of a people who were displaced, oppressed, rejected and misunderstood. It’s also the music of people with amazing reservoirs of resilience and hope.
Migration movements throughout history always have had a cause and effect. The cause being mostly misery and the hope for a better life; the effect being on the one hand negative responses like ‘xenophobia’. Migration nevertheless eventually turns out to be beneficial to the societies affected by it. The migration does not equal ‘invasion’, although the media and politicians are all too keen to play the fear card.
However, migration – freedom of movement – may be considered a basic human right that is only limited by artificial boundaries of which we here in Africa are all too aware. It seems to us that the Blues is an excellent musical ‘format’ to address the issue as it encompasses both ‘misery’ and ‘hope’. Is this a fair assessment on our part or are we cutting corners here?
Your assessment is spot on! Blues is the creation of people who were displaced, oppressed, rejected, and misunderstood. It’s also the music of people with amazing reservoirs of resilience and hope. This triumph of hope over misery is the saga of African-Americans throughout history.
Looking back along the course you have come, would you have done it better at any stage of the way?
I’m of the opinion that at any given moment we are all doing the best we can, so I don’t think I could have done things better, but I can reflect on my journey and see where I lost focus and I can see where I regained my artistic focus. All of this, of course, has much to do with all the other things going on in your life; relationships, family, and others. Hopefully, as we age, we integrate the lessons learned along the way into our daily lives.
At a certain point, struggle fades and enjoyment of the moment increases. Any musician who has been able to pursue their passion for music and provide for themselves and others through music is a winner. I would say that the most important thing in the pursuit of any goal is to never give up.
What project are you working on at the moment?
I’ll be releasing a new album later in 2018, centered around collaborations with musicians from around the world whose music speaks to me. I won’t say more because I’d like it to be a surprise for my fans. What I will say is this: This nearly-completed album already feels like my best work to date!
What advice do you have for many other young and hopeful ones who dream to boast a career as impressive as Eric Bibb?
Never give up and draw inspiration from the ones who have walked this path before you and the power of music.
It has been our pleasure having you on our platform. Thanks for the time, and the best wishes for your career.
It was my pleasure! Thank you for your inspiring questions and interest in my work!