International Blues Express Unites Creole and Malian Blues

Anne Pride-Wilt, Staff Writer

“This is my first job as a translator,” Cedric Watson told the crowd in a quiet moment during his performance at the Cat and the Cream last Friday, which was one of his first collaborations with Sidi Touré as International Blues Express. Touré, a Malian singer-songwriter, admitted early in the show that his English was shaky, and afterward spoke to the audience exclusively in French, leaving the Texas-born Watson to translate.

According to French speakers in the audience, Watson’s translations were haphazard and general, as acknowledged by the inexperienced translator, who often mangled Touré’s elegant phrasing or missed his gist entirely. Fortunately, however, the musical translation — between Watson’s Creole-style fiddling and Touré’s traditional Malian “Songhai blues” — was perfectly smooth, resulting in a cross-cultural blend of radically different sounds that somehow worked completely naturally.

Touré, born in Bamako, Mali in 1959, and dressed in jewel-toned clothing, presented a stark contrast to the much younger and American Watson, outfitted in jeans and flannel, complete with a fleur-de-lis on his belt buckle. Their differences were underscored by the disparate appearances of Watson and Touré’s bandmates, a Louisianan percussionist in cowboy boots, and another Malian instrumentalist with a dress style similar to Touré. As such, International Blues Express appeared to be split evenly between Mali and the Deep South.

In spite of Touré and Watson’s cultural differences, International Blues Express’s sound seems to have been conceived with a slight emphasis on the African side of its background. For the first half of the show, Touré took the musical lead, providing most of the vocals and the banter between songs, although Watson’s talented fiddle work was a constant presence throughout the set. The Touré-led songs were characterized by messages of peace and unity delivered in French, focusing particularly on the political turmoil occurring in Touré’s native Mali.

For the second half of the show, however, the creative influence was more balanced between the two primary performers. A high point was Watson’s soulful rendition of “Pa Janvier,” a traditional Creole folksong, which dazzled the enthusiastic Cat audience. Watson led in both voice and violin, which represented a significant departure from the preceding music. Overall, both the Creole blues and the Malian sound were strongly represented in the musical selections for the evening.

While Watson’s French may have been shaky, his throaty, evocative vocals were anything but, and his mastery of the fiddle was apparent in technique that belied his casual appearance. Watson’s otherwise stiff stage demeanor disintegrated while he was playing, especially in the moments in which the group was clearly just jamming and having a good time. As for Touré, his reedy warble perfectly complemented the style of his guitar playing, which, while less of a centerpiece than Watson’s fiddle, was quietly competent and effective. The remaining two members of the band were likewise excellent, fitting effortlessly into the fun, cheerful atmosphere cultivated by Touré.

The bluesy common ground that both traditional Creole and Malian music have allows them to be combined in interesting ways to create a genre richer than either of its already satisfying components. International Blues Express exists in this perfect blending and is simultaneously more accessible and more complex for it. Nothing can be lost in translation because the translation is part of the beauty. Just like the unconventional friendship between Watson and Touré, the Mali–Louisiana marriage is far from obvious, but when dealing with talent like the International Blues Express, unorthodoxy becomes a virtue.