International Blues Express traces blues from Mali to New Orleans

Chris Bieri

Cedric Watson saw the name and his musical curiosity kicked in.

Although Sidi Toure wasn't related to the renowned Malian musician Ali Farka Toure, Watson knew he'd likely be in for a dose of West African blues when he checked out the musician at the 2012 Vancouver Folk Festival.

A Creole fiddle and accordion player, Watson was introduced to Toure by Matt Greenhill, who manages both artists under the FolkLore International flag.

The musical project that followed -- International Blues Express -- weaves the winding, emotive melodies of Malian music with the Caribbean-tinged rhythms of Zydeco, then reverses course, letting the Creole refrains soar over the African grooves.

"It's very spiritual music," Watson said. "We want people to hear the similarities in the Afro-French music and the Malian music."

While the musical styles have notable differences, the pairing of Watson and Toure was a natural fit.

"There was an immediate rapport," Greenhill said. "Musically, spiritually, all of that. They had instant chemistry and musical respect."

Part of what allowed the project to take off was the shared language of French -- spoken and sung in Mali and used heavily in Louisiana's Creole tradition.

Watson's interest in French predated his involvement with the music, but it turned into a course of study after he moved from his East Texas home to Lafayette, La.

"When I moved to Louisiana, I knew some bad words (but not much else)," Watson joked. "It's important if you want to play the music. I began to pick up more and more. I started to teach myself how to read (in French) and went through a French immersion program."

The group, which features Toure's guitar and Watson's fiddle playing, is bolstered by other instruments native to both styles of music.

Desiree Champagne joins on frottoir, a washboard-like rhythm instrument popular in Zydeco. Malian Abdoulaye Kone dit Kandjafa plays a ngoni, or African lute, the ancestor of the American banjo.

Watson said even within the genres of Creole and Malian music, there is a diversity of style and tone. Champagne is from eastern Louisiana, with more New Orleans influences.

The two Malians, as well, are from different areas of the country, leading to different approaches.

"If you listen to the way those guys play, it's two distinctive styles; they come from different backgrounds and tribes, but it works," he said. "That's what happens when all four of us get together."

Watson has recorded with his own group, Bijou Creole, as well as a number of other bands, including Louisiana Cajun and the Creole outfit the Pine Leaf Boys.

Watson said he listened to everything from R&B to pop growing up, and Toure's music reminds him of some of the artists he heard on the radio when he was young.

"The grooves I hear him play are no different than James Brown and Otis Redding," he said. "That's why it worked and it's still going good."

Toure, who is more than 20 years older than Watson, was born in Gao, Mali. As a youth, he built his first guitar from a writing slate before forging a career specializing in songhai blues.

Many musicologists trace the American blues to Mali, and Toure's music is strongly recognizable to fans of the country and folk blues that arose in the South in the early 20th century.

Watson said International Blue Express performances generally include collaborations between all four musicians and songs that feature the distinct styles of Toure and Watson.

"We collaborate to start the show and to end it," Watson said. "In the middle, the audience will find out where everyone comes from."

The experience has prompted Watson to go deeper into African roots music; he has started playing banjo in the traditional African style.

"It's inspired me," he said. "I've got a banjo now and I've been playing some solo gigs and I'm going to record an album. It's great to be able to play with the people that influenced me in that direction."

After a successful tour in 2013, International Blues Express added more dates in 2014 with the possibility of an album in the future.

"We're open to any possibilities," Greenhill said. "I do want to get them in the studio. We might just have to do a live recording at some point."


By Chris Bieri
Daily News correspondent