Big Harp George sees the blues expanding to embrace global experiences.
The blues is one of the few musical genres rooted in specific life experiences, which sometimes sparks debate regarding who is “entitled” to play the blues. Big Harp George, the stage name of George Bisharat, believes he qualifies. The distinguished professor emeritus at UC Hastings College of the Law and prominent political activist makes a compelling case to back it up.
His new album, “Wash My Horse in Champagne,” was released in April; there will be a CD release party on June 25 at Biscuits and Blues in Union Square.
“I started playing harmonica when I was 13 or 14 years old,” Bisharat says. “There was a lot of harmonica music around at that time—the Rolling Stones, the Beatles. It wasn’t very sophisticated, but it caught the ears of a lot of people, including me. My first exposure to high-quality blues harmonica playing was the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s album “East West.” We played it loud! I played in my first blues band when I was about 17. We were Delta-country blues.”
The Sacramento-raised Bisharat took a different path than many middle-class kids of his generation. “I left for the American University in Beirut in the early ’70s, before the civil war,” he says. “There was a group of students there—Arabs, Americans—and they knew a lot more about blues than I did. They…turned me on to Little Walter, James Cotton, Junior Wells, the great harmonica players.”
Although the drive to be a musician was firmly planted at that time, it took a long time to germinate. Says Bisharat, “This was also the time that I became seriously intrigued by the Middle East. I had been intrigued from the time I was a kid—my father was Palestinian. I spent a lot of time with his family. I just totally fell in love with the place.
“Music was very important,” he explains, “but the draw to the Middle East was more important.”
Traditional blues harmonica relies upon a version of the instrument known as the diatonic “blues harp.” This instrument is fixed in a given key and offers, essentially, the seven diatonic notes that make up that major scale. In playing the blues, you can “bend” these notes to beautiful effect, but if you want to change key or play chromatically, you are out of luck.
Enter the chromatic harmonica, an instrument that makes available all 12 notes of the common chromatic scale. Its creation was the turning point in Bisharat’s musical life.
“I started playing the chromatic harmonica under the inspiration of musician Paul DeLay. There was a point in the late 1990s where I got burned out on traditional blues playing. I bought a harmonica compilation record just because I was bored. I heard DeLay play on this album…a song called ‘Why Can’t You Love Me.’ It was…unlike any blues playing I had ever heard. I consider DeLay one of the towering geniuses of the blues, maybe the greatest player since Little Walter.
“I started working on this myself,” he continues. “And when I did, I felt for the first time like I was finding my own voice. Inspired by Paul DeLay, but ultimately different than his sound. He is so much better than me in many ways, but I had my own style and I decided it was time to make my own recordings.”
Which he has. Bisharat’s first CD, “Chromaticism,” received very encouraging reviews. “One of the best chromatic harp players in the world!” was not atypical. Both of his CDs are available for sale online.
Interestingly, blues is one of the few musical forms that seems to have “entrance requirements,” at least in the popular imagination. Bisharat is well aware of, and sensitive to, this fact. “I have not picked cotton,” he points out. “I have not worked in a steel mill. By comparison to many blues musicians, I’ve had a very privileged life. But that does not mean I can’t tap emotions and contexts that are consistent with the blues tradition, and that are genuine to my own experience.”
He offers some examples. “On my new album I have a song about Palestine called ‘Justice in My Time.’ He explains that the title song of his new CD, ‘Wash My Horse in Champagne’, comes out of a trip he made to Brazil. “I was in Manaus, which I learned was one of the richest cities in the world in the late 19th-century by virtue of the rubber industry. The leaders, who were European, built, among other things, an Opera House and an exact replica of the Paris Central Market. They competed in flaunting their wealth, and one of the ways they did so was by washing their horses in champagne. That, I thought, is a song.”
The popularity of blues waxes and wanes; such has been the case in the Bay Area. “I think we have come through a stretch in blues in which there was almost a mourning over the passage of the greats of the prior generation, the generation that electrified blues and brought it to the world,” says Bisharat. “The San Francisco Blues Festival, which ran for 30 years, was disbanded. There was a reverence, a worshipful attitude, toward the ‘founders.’ It is understandable—they were great, and maybe we are not as good. [Yet] I think what is happening now is that people are realizing that the blues cannot survive by focusing solely on the past.”
His response, like all aspects of Bisharat’s life, is flavored by his profoundly international orientation. Tellingly, he thinks that the local blues scene is being refreshed by a wave of international talent.
“One of the things that is really exciting in the blues world right now, here in the Bay Area maybe more than anywhere, is the internationalization of the style,” he observes. “I can’t sing about picking cotton in Mississippi, but I can sing about my experiences traveling to Brazil and my deep connections to Palestine. [One of my songs is] ‘Hey Jaleh,’ which happens to be the name of my Iranian-born wife. I have had blues musicians tell me I should change that name, that no one has ever sung a blues song to an Iranian woman. “