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Don’t tie this kangaroo down, mate
Harper mixes “land down under” grooves with the blues to create his unique sound
By Eric Schelkopf
Photos: Michael Kurgansky
Photos: Michael Kurgansky
A didgeridoo is not an instrument normally associated with the blues.
But Harper is happy to say that he is not your normal blues musician.
Born in England, Harper moved to Australia at age 10 and fell in love with Perth's vibrant blues and folk scene. Harper, these days, is living in Grass Lake, Michigan, close enough that he has been able to bring his music to Chicago.
As an indication that his unique blend of rock, blues, soul and world music continues to gain an audience, his latest CD, Stand Together, reached number 10 on the Billboard charts and the U.S. roots music charts.
The show starts at 8 p.m. and tickets are $12, available at www.martyrslive.com.
I had the chance to talk to Harper about what drew him to the didgeridoo in the first place and how much lung power it takes to play the instrument.
Q - How does it feel being part of the World Music Festival?
Real good. We've been pushing the work in Chicago more and more. Doing the festival scene is always great. You get a bigger audience, and Chicago is such a beautiful city.
Any kind of World Music Festival is always interesting because not only do I get to play there, but I also get to see some other good stuff from other countries. I did the WOMAD festival once, and we saw a Peruvian band and bands from Czechoslovakia. It was just awesome, that experience.
Q - I understand you moved to Australia when you were 10, and kind of fell in love with the blues and folk scene in Perth.
There was a big influx of British people to that part of Australia, and I guess there was a big love of blues music from the '60s with bands like Cream and Led Zeppelin. Just by the fact that all those people moved there and became a major population, that style of music went with it.
You naturally fell into that scene. It was a big scene, and then you had great bands like Midnight Oil that brought along the more political side of things, like talking about the plight of the aborigines.
Q - Was there something about hearing the blues that really resonated with you?
I think it was the honesty of it. That is folk music to me, it is telling a story. That's what I like. I didn't want to hear another one of those "boy meets girl" songs. It just didn't interest me. I think I naturally leaned toward performing that stuff myself.
Q - When did you think of incorporating the didgeridoo in your music?
That only came about six years ago. A friend of mine was a didgeridoo player, and I never touched it in my life. I never even thought about playing it, even though I had made many aboriginal friends just through my music.
I had sort of fallen in love with the way the didgeridoo was incorporated into the songs. And instead of getting someone else to play it, I'd thought I'd give it a go.
It was a hard thing to do. It took a lot of concentration and work. I got a lot of help from some great aboriginal friends in Sydney. They went out of their way to help me choose the right instrument and teach me about circular breathing and the history of the instrument itself.
I got a lot of love from the people that started using it, and I can't even imagine the first person who picked up a hollow piece of wood and made a noise out of it. Who thinks these things up?
Q - Do you play it when you are writing songs? How do you incorporate it in the music?
I love grooves. One of my favorite groove masters in the world was Bill Withers. I always thought he had the greatest grooves, and people still play his music all the time. He had some of the greatest bass grooves.
The thing that works great with the didgeridoo is that it's one note, with a few chords in it. So it's very haunting. And when I combine that with a bass groove going along, it just adds another element to the music.
I don't put the didgeridoo in all the songs. I think that could get kind of dull. It was tough for us, because being signed to a blues label, we were getting a lot of flak from people who were wondering, what's this thing he's putting in his music?
Q - So you've had to win people over?
I think a lot of people have just never heard anything like that before, and it took them by surprise. But everyone knew that I wasn't the standard blues guy, doing the 12-bar style. They knew that I was a little out of the box.
People who come and see me know that I am not going to be standing up there doing a standard blues tune, although every now and again I will throw one in just to honor the great players that I've always admired. They sort of know that I am just grabbing what I've learned, and creating my own music.
The advancement of that style of music is to modernize it and make it more accessible to more people. That keeps it alive.
I think the reason I wanted to go with Blind Pig Records (he has made three CDs with the label) was simply because they had a great reputation and they were actually looking for something a little outside the standard kind of blues thing they were doing.
The music crosses all boundaries, I think, except for country and western, of course. I can't go down that road at all.
Q - How much lung power does it take to play the didgeridoo?
Actually, not much at all. You're actually breathing in through your nose and breathing out through your mouth, so the air doesn't go into your lungs, only a small amount obviously to stay alive.
It takes a long time to learn, because your body doesn't want to do that. It wants to stay alive, so it's going, "I don't know why you want to breathe like this. If you keep doing this, you'll be dead."
It's actually getting over your brain wanting to breathe normally and changing the way it breathes. It's a really unusual and very meditative kind of thing to do.
Eric Schelkopf has covered the arts and entertainment scene in Chicago for the past 25 years. Visit his informative blog at: http://www.thetotalscene.blogspot.com/