Saturday, April 14, 2012

Interview-20 Questions with Debra Devi

I haven't yet done a music post on blues giants Howling Wolf and Little Milton in part because there's just too much to write about them. I'm not quite ready to write something short enough for a blog post. The Mighty Wolf definitely deserves a post all by himself. He was called "The soul of man" and was he ever. So while I was reading about Howling Wolf's recently deceased guitarist, the famed Hubert Sumlin, I was delighted to discover someone else who not only knew a great deal about Hubert Sumlin but had interviewed him for a book detailing the African-American roots of blues and larger African influences on American language and culture.
Every Saturday I  inflict upon share with you my various impressions on music, film or literature. For a change of pace I thought it would be fun to feature an interview with someone who is already a successful professional musician and published author. That's a somewhat rare combination and one which I thought was interesting.

Debra Devi is a musician and the author of the award winning book The Language of The Blues: From Alcorub to Zuzu. This book is not only a collection of interviews with famous musicians such as Little Milton Campbell, Hubert Sumlin, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Bonnie Raitt, Dr. John, Jimmie Vaughn and others but also an "anecdotal dictionary" of blues terminology. Since most blues terminology comes from African or African-American sources this book discusses more than music but please read the interview with Debra after the break.

Debra Devi
The Urban Politico: There are a lot of modern blues and rock musicians that are interested in aping culture and music but couldn’t care less in understanding where it came from. You are different. So what got you interested in documenting and transmitting the African-American blues cultural meanings?
      Debra Devi: Thanks! I’ve loved the blues from my first exposure to it at a Koko Taylor concert in Milwaukee when I was 17. Son Seals was playing guitar and I literally flew out of my chair onto the dance floor. I had never danced before. Met my first boyfriend that night, too.   
      When I was working for Blues Revue magazine as an associate editor, I realized that a lot of us blues fans bandy about words like mojo and hoodie – but do we really know what they mean? Or where they are from?  I started keeping a list of terms from blues songs like killing floor, juke, hoosegow etc. When I was up to 100, I realized maybe I should write a book. 

The Urban Politico When you were interviewing these musical giants for your book did you have any preconceptions going in that were altered after you completed your interviews?
Debra DeviI was unprepared for their generosity.  Everyone I spoke to gave so much time and attention to my questions. I interviewed elder blues legends like Robert Jr. Lockwood, Henry Gray, Hubert Sumlin,  “Little” Milton Campbell Jr., Alvin “Red” Tyler, Mardi Gras Indian Chief Howard “Smiley” Ricks, and Jody Williams. I also talked at length with prominent crossover artists like Dr. John, Bonnie Raitt and Jimmie Vaughan and Robben Ford. Most of the managers of the older blues artists were not interested in arranging interviews because being in my book wasn't going to sell albums. 
Luckily, one day there was a press conference at the Lincoln Center Barnes and Noble for a big blues concert that night in NYC. Sitting along one wall, in a receiving line, were many of the artists I had been trying to interview. I got in the autograph line. As I moved down the line, I was able to explain this project directly to Hubert Sumlin, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Milton Campbell and other blues legends. I walked out with a dozen home phone numbers.  They wanted to be involved in documenting the history of the blues. 

The Urban Politico: Were you surprised by the amount of African links to American culture and especially blues music that you found?
      Debra Devi: Yes.
The Urban Politico What do you think is the most important thing that blues fans (and for that matter non-blues fans or just people interested in African-American culture) can learn from your book?
Debra Devi: The Africans brought here as slaves had incredibly strong aesthetic, ethical and cultural values that not only withstood the shock of their forced transplantation to the New World, but actually transformed and invigorated it.  I had no idea that so much African language has seeped into American English. Just a few examples: jam, jazz, jiffy, boo boo, rock, to dig something, banana, yam, funk, hip, hobo, chick. 
So many African religious concepts, too – to be cool, to have soul – have become part of our uniquely American culture.  Equally important are the aesthetic values and devices from African music that survived in the blues, which in turn birthed jazz and rock ‘n’ roll.  African musicians of the slavery era were actually more advanced in the use of polyphonic, contrapuntal rhythms than their European peers were. While European composers explored harmonic complexity, Africans focused on rhythmic complexity, in part because African languages were tonal, so drums could be used to “talk.”  
Although their drums, songs, and languages were outlawed in the colonies, African slaves held fast to the remarkable rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic features of their music. They continued to employ vibrato, tremolo, overtones, and hoarse-voiced and shouting African vocal techniques to convey many shades of meaning. Over time they mingled all these features and techniques with the work songs they created and with the European hymns and folk songs they heard to create the blues. 
Why is this not taught in our schools? We learn about the Dutch, English and other groups that came here. Why don’t our children learn about the tribes from which most of the slaves came, or the richness of African culture and language, and that Africa’s influence is what has made this country uniquely American? How is this not American history equally worthy of being taught alongside the Revolutionary War? 
If my book can encourage people to explore those questions, I’ll feel I have made some small contribution. 
The Urban Politico: Did your book grow in the telling? Was it much more detailed than you expected it to be?
Debra Devi: Lord, yes! I never imagined I’d wind up with 385 footnotes.

Little Milton
The Urban Politico: One of your interview subjects was Little Milton.  He had a voice which could be described as operatic. Any tricks he passed on to you about vocal projection? I am in awe at the control he had both vocally and instrumentally.
Debra Devi: I wish I had thought to ask him for some vocal coaching; he was indeed a very fine singer. I saw him in his seventies perform live and his voice was still so rich and deep. He was a top-notch bandleader, too.

The Urban PoliticoHubert Sumlin often described Howling Wolf as a stern taskmaster, musically speaking. Can you imagine working for someone like that? Or do you ever see yourself in that light?
Debra Devi: I think Hubert Sumlin recognized and respected Wolf’s mastery. I also enjoy working with masters who drive me to be better.  I’m pretty exacting but I’m lucky to work with such great players in my band that I rarely have to crack the whip. I have to work hard to keep up with them! 

The Urban Politico If there is one thing you would want non-musicians to know about being a musician what would it be? Same question for non-writers and writers.
Debra Devi: Find your own voice.

The Urban PoliticoHow does the songwriting process work for you? Do you sit down and determine to write a song and then write one or do you need a stroke of inspiration?
Debra Devi: I usually write a song because I have a strong feeling I can’t express in words. I play my guitar until I hit upon something that expresses that feeling. The lyrics come later. I wrote “Get Free” after I came home from (Zen Guitar author) Phil Sudo’s memorial service, for example. 
I do sometimes also sit down determined to write a song.  If artists only wait for inspiration to strike, they’ll be waiting a long time. 

The Urban Politico: Where do you see modern blues and/or blues-rock headed at a time where pop, electronica, rap and country seem to be commercially dominant?
Debra Devi: I have been encouraged by the popularity of artists like Cee Lo Green, Adele, Amy Winehouse, Joe Bonamassa and Jack White, who have strong blues vibes. I noticed that at the Grammys this year there was more real singing and more real musicians on the stage. I think we’re seeing a backlash against overly processed music. Listeners are flocking to soul again!  At the same time, like Bonnie Raitt said when I interviewed her: “Why don’t we hear B.B. King on the radio?” Good question.  

The Urban Politico: How long have you been playing guitar? Was that your first instrument?
Debra Devi: I started off playing acoustic guitar, which I never found that satisfying. Once I got ahold of an electric guitar I was hooked. To me, it’s like singing through my fingers. I’ve been playing long enough to hope to get to play a lot longer. 

The Urban Politico: Who are some of your influences musically?
Debra Devi:  The Doppler effect, love, breathing, feedback, sex, car horns, cats yowling, pain, rain, thunder, wind, heartbreak, Om.  Freddie King, Son Seals, Jimmy Page, Dave Navarro, Chrissie Hynde, The Sex Pistols, Bonnie Raitt, Prince, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Aretha Franklin, Chris Spedding, Brian Robertson. 

The Urban Politico: Unfortunately even today there are a fair amount of people who get intimidated by the guitar and think you have to be a certain gender or race to play it. It’s just an instrument, like any other. Any advice for fledgling guitarists? Especially women guitarists?
Debra Devi: Don’t be afraid to make unattractive faces! I look like a puffer fish when I’m soloing. My advice is to go to blues jams, get in a band– start playing with other people, start playing original songs, start performing. Dare to suck! That’s how you get good. You should always play with people better than you.   
Playing guitar is not that tough. It doesn’t require massive physical strength or tons of testosterone. The main issue for women is socialization to look pretty above all else, and to avoid expressing certain strong emotions. As my mother said when I asked her if I could play electric guitar when I was fifteen, “It’s just not ladylike!” 
Playing electric guitar is a great way for women to plug into their personal power and to get comfortable being loud.  

The Urban Politico: Do you read music? Are you deep into musical theory? Do you think these things are critical for musicians starting out?
Debra Devi: I don’t read music and never had the patience to learn theory.  I wanted to play so bad that I just picked up the guitar and got started.  I play mostly by ear, which can slow me down some. But I also trust my ear more than my brain, so sometimes I think maybe it’s OK to play by ear.  
I do love jazz and would love to be able to hang better with my jazz-playing friends, so at some point I’m going to dig in and learn a few things.  I think it can be very helpful to learn to read music and to study theory, so long as you don’t let your brain override your ear.

Sumlin and The Wolf
The Urban Politico: Hubert Sumlin famously preferred to play without a pick. Some other guitarists like Marc Knopfler, Albert Collins and John Lee Hooker also usually eschewed picks. What’s your preference and why?
Debra Devi: I dig picks. I use a Jim Dunlop 1MM. I sneak my fingers in there sometimes for a little hybrid, but there’s something fierce about a pick attack that works for me.

The Urban Politico: I see that you endorse Fender guitars so I’m guessing you like the single-coil sound? If so, why is that? 
Debra Devi: I do like the single-coil sound, but I also routed out the back pickup of my Strat and put a humbucker in there. And I added jumbo frets. I like different sounds for different moments. 
The Urban Politico: Do you prefer standard tuning for much of your music or do you ever play in alternate tunings?
Debra Devi:  On the Get Free album, I used Drop D on “Demon in the Sack” and “When It Comes Down,” and DADGAD on “Love That Lasts.” I love alternate tunings. I find them very inspiring for songwriting. Soloing in them is pretty fun, too! 

The Urban Politico: What is more important to you: your writing or your music? Do you see yourself continuing to pursue both paths simultaneously? Does one feed into the other?
Debra Devi: Right now I’m more focused on music, but I’m sure a book idea will torture me into writing it at some point. Writing is very isolating, but music gets me out of the house and hanging with other people. The two balance each other out nicely in my life.

The Urban Politico: On your album “Get Free” is “Howl at the Moon” an Ellen McIlwaine cover? She's been mentioned around these parts before as someone people should know about. 
Debra Devi: Actually, I wrote the “Howl at the Moon” on my Get Free album. I’m not familiar with Ellen McIlwaine, but I’ll check her out!

The Urban Politico: The best blues performances have often been live. Why is that?
Debra Devi: As I say in the book, “The defining experience of Vodou--possession--is the source for the idea in the blues (and later, in rock ’n’ roll) that the musician’s highest attainment is to connect with the soul beyond the body and the mind, and be so possessed by this connection that it animates and drives the artist’s performance.” It’s easier to get there live!
The Urban Politico: Thanks so much for your time, Debra!
Debra Devi: Thank you, great questions!
Learn more about Debra's music and writing at
Debra is a former associate editor of Blues Revue and has also written for Rolling Stone, Guitar World and The Village Voice, among other publications. 
When It Comes Down (Live)
Guitar Solo (live)

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