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Straight From The Soul
Text by Sohini Datta
Published: Volume 19, Issue 3, March, 2011

Only once in a while, when the weather is dream-like, can one hear the sounds of New Orleans playing in a suburban Mumbai garden. Sohini Datta taps into the pulse of the Mahindra and Mahindra Blues Festival that recently stirred the cityís soul

The initial excitement...
The flurry began some days before the event when the Mahindra and Mahindra Blues Festival was announced. The buzz of anticipation began to increase as the days passed by with the impending arrival of talents like Buddy Guy, Shemekia Copeland and Indian groups like Soulmate and the Saturday Night Blues Band.
Soon, the mighty musicians from another land arrived. And like all great things, the word spread swiftly. Over a very hot afternoon, in the cool embrace of the ITC Maratha, they made an appearance. The veteran, Buddy Guy, hadnít arrived but the gorgeous Shemekia Copeland and the rest had for an interaction with fans. Jonny Lang said, ďIt will be one of those days; I will wake up tomorrow and wonder, what all did I say yesterday?Ē A bit of humour, some coffee and many cookies wrapped up our chat with him.

The buzz and the beginning...
Long before you reached the venue, blocks away from Mehboob Studios in Bandra, you knew there was a festival happening. The yellow T-shirts of the valet service, the exceptional traffic jam, the countless fans with their blue bands onÖand the adrenaline needed no more excuses to shoot up. Just like the music, the festival too had its chilling hat on. No one rushed, no hair was lost in the pulling and pushing, no elbows were smashed into anyoneís face and thankfully, no drink was spilt. There was one odd incident of the man outside one of the stages demanding a refund if he wasnít allowed to drink inside, but in all everyone was just happy and high on the music.

Shemekia was just the supernova the evening needed. As her voice entered our souls and fired energy sparks into our brains, the ambience changed into one of a moving, grooving, humming haven. We rolled out of one venue; the drinks poured happily in one stage as we refilled our merry making and reached the second stage in time. Jonny Lang was ready to strum! We swayed in unison and waved frantically at the camera on the crane and watched a group of teen girls jump in ecstasy. As the crowd lip synced, it was a pleasant surprise to know that a young star like him had such devoted fans in this country.
The converts were made, those who werenít sure of how the festival would be, had already bought passes for the final day before leaving.

Buddy Guy in the building!
Sunday was dedicated to the Blues. Indiaís very own Soulmate and Saturday Night Blues Band belted out mind-blowing performances as the sun set on Suburban Mumbai and the night ushered in the grand performance by the living legend of Blues. In a printed shirt and white cap, Buddy Guy strolled in as the crowd cheered.

Back in the VIP area, my first time there looked promising. ĎSigh, the view isnít any better,í I thought. Maybe that is the essence of concerts, being part of a crowd, singing the same words... itís like a form of worship. There was the odd group out, who probably didnít have any Sunday plans that day. Most part of the performance, we didnít know whether to get blinded by the flash of their cameras or just ask them if they even knew who was playing. But thatís the great bit about good music and out-of-this-world performances; music brings with it an unseen humility. In two minutes of frustration, the Blues soothe your soul and make your foot tap and mind swing; everything around simply melts away. What one is left with is a magnanimous universal sound, notes floating about, laser lights on the ceiling and one unforgettable weekend.

The heiress to soul-drenched divas on her singing, success and shoes....

Young and all of 32, Shemekia Copeland is the contemporary energy drug of the Blues. Hear her sing and come away assured that this genre of music is far from dying out. Itís still churning out gems like her, born in Harlem to Texas blues guitarist and singer Johnny Copeland. Shemekia began to pursue a singing career in earnest at age 16 and in 1997 soon after her graduation, she landed a record deal with Alligator Records, which issued her debut album Turn the Heat Up! Always in heels on stage, this lady is versatile and vivacious as a summer breeze. While still in her 20s, she opened for the Rolling Stones, headlined at the Chicago Blues Festival and numerous festivals around the world, scored critics choice awards on both sides of the Atlantic and shared the stage with such luminaries as Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Taj Mahal and John Mayer. Heiress to the rich tradition of soul-drenched divas like Ruth Brown, Etta James and Koko Taylor, Copelandís shot at the eventual title of Queen of the Blues is pretty clear. By some standards, she may already be there.

ďIíve had success in my career, and Iím happy with that,Ē she says. ďBut that doesnít mean I donít want to continue to grow. In order for an artiste to grow Ė and for a genre to grow Ė you have to do new things. Iím extremely proud to say Iím a Blues singer, but that doesnít mean thatís the only thing Iím capable of singing, or thatís the only style of music Iím capable of making.Ē With a schedule that includes going to Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and Qatar, spending most of her time at bases within the war zone of Afghanistan, she is the nightingale spreading the Bluesí joys all around the world. She says, ďI was on board when Bluzapalooza toured Iraq and Kuwait in 2009, and I can tell you I have memories from that trip Iíll cherish forever.Ē

But donít let her busy schedule take you away from the girl in her. Candidly confessing to loving shoes more than clothes she adds, ďI can be in jeans, in a skirt but always in heels. I love my shoes.Ē With a collection of over 300 pairs, she is a lady with a passion! First time in India and she was very excited about the Mahindra and Mahindra Blues Festival and exclaimed, ďThey have guitar players coming over and over again, but I am glad they brought a woman vocalist; this is a first and I am glad itís me.Ē

From being compared to Ruth Brown to lamenting on the dependence on technology by the youth, Shemekia said, ďI am not on Twitter because I donít want to know if someone is sitting in the toilet or eating his breakfast! We are so dependent on phones and the Internet, I am afraid my kids will never know the joys of holding a record in their hands. I canít wait for all this to go away; I think I will live long enough and see all this get over.Ē Behind every fabulous lady is a successful band Ė Morris Roberts (drums), Jeremy Baum (keyboards), Willie Scandlyn (rhythm guitar), Arthur Neilson (guitar) and Kevin Jenkins (bass). In 1998, Shemekia found Arthur to be the guitar player that she was looking for to complete her touring band.

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