The Middle East Ain't Nothing But the Blues
Otis Grand recalls that his colleagues on the U.S. Blues circuit used to call him “the Blues Police” because he would pronounce which players had the Blues inside them and which ones were just playing the notes.
Lebanese-born and raised in the U.S., Grand has been playing Blues guitar for 40 years. During that spell he’s composed, made CDs and, by his own reckoning, played every festival in the world, all the while sticking to his style of “real classic Blues.”
Having spent most of his life in the U.S., Grand has been spending more time in Lebanon of late and he’s become a fixture at Zouk Mikhael’s summer music festival. Grand chatted with The Daily Star about the Blues in his life and the Middle East.
Q: What is Blues?
A: Blues is one of these styles of music which is based on black-American culture that is now becoming universal, in the sense that you’ll find Blues everywhere ...
But Blues is a feeling. If you don’t feel the Blues, you can’t play it. This is why there are so few people who can actually play that music. I call it classic Blues. So it grew up from black enslavement and frustrations, and it became international.
Q: There are many different genres of music to which a young musician can be drawn. How did you come to the Blues personally?
A: I got infected by the Blues because I was listening to it on the radio. My roots are not in the plantations, I listened to Blues when I was a kid and loved it at the age of 13. There were the black radio stations in Oakland, California, playing Blues. And once you get that feeling – we call it being snake bit – once you get it, it’ll never leave you ...
This was in the ’60s, when we had the acid rock, bands ... I never listened to them. And it went deeper and deeper, and I started buying [Blues] records, and going to black Blues clubs, and hanging out learning from them. I didn’t go to school to learn how to play guitar. I learned by watching the old guys. I watched their hands all night. I asked them to show me how to play things. I watched their personas on stage, how they reacted, how they felt, how they connected with the audience.
And that has been all my life. I got lucky and started playing with those incredible guys. I listened to their records, and not only did I play with them, but I became friends with them ... I am one of the very lucky few non-black guys who actually went to the source of the music and took it back with me.
These old guys respect me ... They don’t look at me and tell me “Oh you ain’t black. You can’t play our music.” They love me and respect me because I play it like they do. I am not a white guy who came and stole their lyrics and their music, who glorified it, merchandized it and made a lot of money of it ...
Blues is a feeling and there is only one rule: You either have it or you don’t have it.
Q: Did you have any experience performing Blues in this region when you started performing? What was the scene like in those days?
A: I had the first Blues band here in the early ’70s. I came back here in 1969 and immediately what do I do? I start a Blues band. Something anybody has ever heard of. My band was playing in clubs five, six times per week, to young kids. And it was packed and they loved it. I made money, it was great. Unfortunately, it was [destroyed] by the [Civil] War.
I’ve done everything I needed to do in the West ... Now, my mission is to keep the Blues alive and bring the Blues to Lebanon, to get a strong foothold, make sure that there is an audience for it. And I know there is an audience for it. There are plenty of great musicians who play Blues and listen to it.
Q: There are a number of performers who have emerged from Africa who have got lots of international press attention because their music is an interesting blend of local and Blues sensibility. Do you hear any relationship between local classical and folk music that bleeds through in Lebanese Blues?
A: In Lebanon, not yet ... But in my travels, I found every nation has its own kind of Blues. But the closest thing I discovered is that Lebanon and in the Middle East there is more Blues that you can really imagine. So it’s not really Chicago Blues but if you listen to buzouq players, they got more Blues than anybody else I have ever heard.
Blues originally started off with the Middle East. That kind of beat, the style and rhythms ... they were taken to America by these black slaves from West Africa. There is a source of that. Some musicologists have discovered this exact source. Remember these slaves were brought in, they didn’t speak a word of English, but they had a culture, they had music. And then, of course, it developed.
American Blues is an amalgam between Scottish and Irish reels and Middle Eastern beats. This is why I made a project of recoding a CD of Lebanese rhythms – with derbake drums and all this stuff – and my Blues guitar. And I’ll release that one day.
But there is so much Blues [in Lebanon.] there is so much of it but people don’t realize that ... And it’s been my mission not only to bring black Blues to Lebanon, as a cultural thing, but also to take Lebanese folklore, folk music and rhythms, beats, instrumentation back to the States. And say “Look, this is the same.”
In fact, some other friends of mine are doing that. They are including a little bit of buzouq on their recordings. It is a complicated mission but I am working on it.
Q: Would you consider settling down in Lebanon?
A: If I find a beautiful Lebanese woman, then maybe [I’ll stay.] I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs. I have one fetish: I am in love with Lebanese women. They give me the Blues. I was born here. My ethnic origin is here. I was lucky enough to be exposed to this music and I’m bringing it back. I have the soul of a Middle Easterner, who managed to be accepted as a Blues player by the old masters. They accepted me as one of them. There is nobody like me. I am one of them. They used to say “You ain’t black and you ain’t White, so you’re one of us.”