A convergence of cultures in Afrissippi

Boston Globe, May 9, 2008

Sometimes an artistic project comes along that seems at once utterly unlikely, yet at the same time completely logical. Unlikely because of the strange sequence of events that it took for it to occur; logical because the connections it explores are ones that were present, if submerged, all along, just waiting to be brought back to life.

One such connection is the one that binds the hill-country blues of north-central Mississippi – a deeply entrenched regional American tradition, yet quite obscure relative to the better-known Delta or Chicago blues – with the rhythms, melodies, and performance styles of West Africa.

And the band Afrissippi, formed when a Fulani musician from Senegal named Guelel Kumba made his way fortuitously to Oxford, Miss., and discovered in the out-of-the-way college town an uncannily familiar creative home, has made it its mission to restore and renew those ties.

Composed of singer-guitarist Kumba and three veterans of the hill-country scene, all of whom worked under local mavens like R.L. Burnside or Junior Kimbrough, Afrissippi is touring now behind its brand-new second album, “Alliance.” The group’s new tour, which included a stop at Johnny D’s on Tuesday, was canceled unexpectedly yesterday because of visa issues with Canada.

“Alliance” builds on a 2005 debut, “Fulani Journey,” a small independent release that was enough to earn the group some festival bookings and help expand its reputation outside the vibrant but small Oxford scene.

On both records, Kumba sings in Fulani and a bit in English and French, as the group develops grooves with a trance-like quality, some smoothed out with horns and lilting guitar, others staccato and percussive.

In the blues world, there’s a sense that the hill-country style – a folk tradition that is more rural than racial, shared by black and white musicians alike – has somehow maintained its ties to Africa in a way that other blues subgenres have not.

But when Kumba first came to Oxford in 2002, he says on the phone from there, he had no idea of this musical kinship – indeed, he barely knew where he was at all. A Senegalese friend who had once studied at Ole Miss had asked him to come play at a tribute for an instructor there, Peter Aschoff, a blues scholar who had passed away.

Later that day, Kumba jammed with local musicians. “We improvised together on a Junior Kimbrough song and on traditional Fulani melodies,” he says. The connection was immediate and unexpected. “It was pure chance, a total surprise.”

Kumba went back to New York City, where he had been living for a few months, eking out a living doing odd jobs in Brooklyn. But his new friends in Oxford encouraged him to return. He took the plunge the next year.

“A lot of my friends said, `What are you doing? They still lynch black people down there!”’ he says. “But somehow, I’m an adventurer. I’m a Fulani; there’s a certain curiosity.”

The Fulani, after all, are a nomadic culture – pastoralists who historically grazed their livestock across the semi-desertic Sahel region, spanning several countries of West Africa. Kumba grew up in Senegal, in a traditional setting.

“I come from a village, a very rural culture,” he says. Coming from a family of griots, the caste of musicians who act as community historians and praise-singers, he came to performance naturally. At the same time, he says, he didn’t develop a career as an artist until he went to Oxford. He used to play around in bars in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, but, he says, “it was all very underground.”

Justin Showah, the bass player in Afrissippi and the head of local indie label Hill Country Records, says Kumba’s arrival in Oxford had a greater significance than even Kumba knew.

“He’d be a great cultural addition to any town,” Showah says. “But especially this one, where it’s only four decades ago that we allowed the first African-American at the university. We’re still in a transition time here. He doesn’t even realize it, but that makes his presence 10 times more special.”

Now something of a local icon, Kumba says he has had nothing but positive experiences in Oxford. “I haven’t had any problems at all,” he says. “People are open here. They’re polite and friendly.”

The student community and the town’s well-developed literary and culinary cultures help sustain venues and artists’ livelihoods. And the rural flavor, Kumba says, reminds him of Futa, his home region. Besides, he has only to go to Memphis, an hour away, to take part in events with the large Fulani colony there.

A nomad by tradition and by personal choice, Kumba now is surprised to find himself putting down roots in this small college town in the deep South, to the extent of considering opening an African restaurant there.

“Apparently I’m becoming sedentary,” he says with a laugh. “That’s heavy!”