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A World of the Blues

Johnny Copeland's music stretches from Houston to Africa and beyond

Though he's lived in the New York City area for more than two decades, Johnny Copeland still introduces himself on-stage as "from the Third Ward." For some, covering that much territory might be a bit of a geographic stretch, but as Copeland's latest album, Jungle Swing -- not to mention a significant body of his work since a pivotal moment in 1983 -- shows, he's got a right to describe himself as a citizen of just about anywhere on the globe that he wants. Call Copeland a world beat bluesman if you insist on a label; his innovative merging of African percussion rhythms with the blues he learned as a teen in southeast Houston has resulted in the reunion of two long-separated, but still-related, styles.

That kinship is the central theme of Jungle Swing, which was recorded with Copeland's touring band plus percussionist Kimati Dinizulu and vocalists Seth Sibanda, Bhekisisa Khoza and Tsepo Mokone in early 1995, just as whispers of the severity of Copeland's oft-rumored health problems began to circulate around Houston. Although Copeland says that "I was really sick when we recorded Jungle Swing" and describes the release as "a producer's [John Snyder] and manager's [Holly Bullamore] thing," what resulted was a remarkably strong testament to Copeland's "it's all just music" ethos. Songs such as his "The Jungle" and "Kasayubu" feature uncannily smooth transitions from Texas blues shuffle to African polyrythmic percussion solos that, on first listen, convince the listener that they must have missed something in the shift from one genre to another -- and, with repetition, prove that the oft-theorized West African roots of the blues are much closer to the surface than had been previously imagined.

It was a proximity that Copeland first became aware of in 1983, when he signed on to a State Department-sponsored tour of western Africa. What began as a series of gigs soon became a spiritual transformation. A stroll through the marketplace in the Congolese capital of Brazzaville resulted in Copeland's joining a line dance behind a troupe of African percussionists; the energy and emotions of that moment have marked his music ever since. Copeland has remarked repeatedly that the moment made him aware for the first time of his deep racial, spiritual and cultural ties to Africa. No quote could underscore the sincerity of that commitment as strongly as the music that resulted: in 1984, Copeland returned to Africa, assembled a multinational cast of African musicians, merged them with his blues band and recorded Bringing It All Back Home, a cult classic that foreshadowed the popularity of world beat music.

Later, Copeland discovered he wasn't the first blues artist to make the connection between African drums and American shuffles. After recording Back Home, Copeland was contacted by legendary Chicago bassist Willie Dixon. Three decades earlier, he had undergone a similar African experience that resulted in a song titled "Jungle Swing." "He gave me the song in '84," Copeland recalls. "Willie said, 'Cut it.' I said I'd just finished recording, and he said, 'Take it, maybe later on.' " It's a testament to both Dixon's songwriting skills and the sincerity of both artists' transformations that only a trip to Jungle Swing's liner notes reveals that the solitary song on the CD not written by Copeland is the title track.

In keeping with Copeland's enthusiasm for jumbling genres, Jungle Swing's overtly Afrocentric tracks share grooves with creations that reflect the traditions of his Houston upbringing. In the disc's strongest tribute to the days when Copeland learned his craft alongside the likes of Albert Collins and Joe "Guitar" Hughes, "We Love Walking on the Wild Side's" features a boisterous interplay between Copeland's electric Gibson, Byard Lancaster's tenor saxophone and the piano riffs of barbecue guru Floyd Phillips; the history of two members of that trio stretches back four decades to when Copeland and Phillips were members of the Houston doo-wop quintet, the Dukes of Rhythm.

Though Copeland's thoughts and music keep turning back to Houston, it's been a while since his body made the trip. His last Houston appearance came during the 1994 Juneteenth blues festival. It was a memorable visit, one that resulted in the latest in a series of magic moments that drew heavily on his lifelong association with Albert Collins -- and a mystical song that has influenced them since the early days of their careers.

A combination of heavy rain and a home game of the NBA championships resulted in a record low turnout, despite the unique opportunity to see Copeland and Coco Montoya perform with Collins' Icebreakers; Collins had died the previous Thanksgiving, and this was the first time since that Copeland had played with his former associate's band. The enthusiasm of the crowd and the performers themselves became most evident when Copeland and the Icebreakers performed "Black Cat Bone." Those who have a hard time imagining a lyric such as "Followed that big-legged woman / All the way to San Antone" sung with religious intensity needed to have been there when the voices of the congregation lifted in unison.

"Black Cat Bone," which Copeland says -- with considerable understatement -- "just really seems to do something to people," has been a Third Ward anthem since the 1960s, when it was the signature song of steel guitarist Harding "Papa Hops" Wilson. It was largely due to Copeland that much later, and purely by accident, the tune came to worldwide attention.

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