I had the opportunity to phone up this legend and talk to him about his tours and travels, the early days, his genuine interest in and hope for South Africa and his National Steel Zulu Skies Blues Tour to South Africa. He landed in South Africa yesterday and his tour kicks off tomorrow, the 3rd of November in Pretoria. Not scared of traveling, he will pack 40 shows into 45 days during his visit here. This is probably the most interesting musician I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing in 2106 and we talked for nearly an hour. Naturally I couldn’t post the interview in its entirety and had to cut it down quite a bit. Nonetheless, you will get what this blues man is all about…
Son of a civil rights lawyer and a fiddle player, MacLean was by his early teens playing harmonica and washboard in coffeehouses and festivals, and was appearing on radio and television variety shows. In 1972 he formed a duo with Colin Linden, (now Grammy nominated producer and recent Dylan guitarist) and became a frequent opener for Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee, Muddy Waters, and John Hammond. Famously, they traded a guitar for a 1948 Dodge, and set out to explore America– never looking back…
You’re known for the fact that you tell songs and you sing stories. That’s what the blues all about right? Stories?
Yeah, its all stories. Being able to tell stories and sing it with your own voice is kinda where you want to get to. Certainly I think I’ve got to that point now where after 45 years I’ve do my own stories and I’m very comfortable…
Your sets probably got longer, because your stories got more and more?
Hahaha, I gotta try and keep the sets short…
Do you talk a lot between songs or do you let the music tell the stories?
You know, I don’t think I talk too much in between when I sing.
Do you think the way you sing the Delta roots blues – is it still the same sort of thing or did it change a lot? Is more commercialized? Did it perhaps become more saturated?
I think as a genre, the blues has never been more popular than it is today. Certainly in North America the size of the blues festivals and the amount of blues tourism that exists, the impact that it has on the economy in places like Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, St Louis and Chicago… With that said– with this high popularity the music itself has never been more bland or commercialized than it is today. There’s a real movement towards West Coast jump music and straight ahead Chicago blues as being The Blues. And its almost like “music of your life” for a crowd of retired folks who come out here to the same set every night – they wanna hear Mojo and that kinda stuff which is great, but I’m not taking it away from them. People are having a lot of fun. And the bands who play this stuff… They’ve never been better. It’s a great generation of musicians playing now. But a lot of the time people are playing the blues but they’re not necessary blues people. Blues is much more to me at this stage in my life. Its not a barred structure, it’s not necessarily even a music. Its a spiritual place… It’s a music that tells stories and it’s healing music. You’ll know it if you like it. Its blues. If you define it too much, you kill it.
But I think people in the States are more spoilt and lucky because you’ve got the whole Delta and there’s no chance of removing the blues from it the same way you can’t remove gumbo or catfish. In South Africa we suffer a bit because it is more of a niche thing…
Well, I hope I can help you people because I really like the artists I’ve heard, you know following them on YouTube because South Africans have a very unique way of approaching music. It has been isolated for a lot of years.
Ja, but we can’t use that excuse anymore? I think South Africans are snobbish when it comes to music, like they have an attitude about it. You sometimes have to beg people to support local music, which is weird?
You have to do that wherever you are, but I hope I can help change that a little bit. If nothing more, the musicians who’ve helped me put this South African tour together, you know, I owe them a lot of gratitude. So when they decide to go to North America to do what they do, I’ll definitely do what I can to help.
So who are they guys over here who helped you put this together?
Well, you know, Charlie King and her band in Johannesburg, Bright Lights Big City with Jako Loots. In Cape Town guys like Bill Knight, Tony Cox who is a fabulous guitar player, I mean really. And that’s where I was getting at in the sense with the isolation. South Africa’s got some really interesting ways of approaching and playing the music. Every place you go– when you go to Chicago, when you go to Montreal or you go to the West Coast – you get guys who’ve been playing together for 30, 40 years and they have their own quirks about how they play which makes it unique. And I hear that in South African blues, too, in the way guys play. They’ve got really cool things that they do that are so unique to South Africa. The way Tony plays guitar, he’s doing this tapping thing with his hands on the box. I’ve seen a whole lot of South African guitar players do that. It’s not wimpy flamenco stuff, this is cool blues, haha!
Back in the day in the 70s you had a duo with Colin who is now Bob Dylan’s guitarist. What was it like back then?
We were sort of young prodigies. We were very young, aggressive players but were very good at what we did and we knew it. And we practiced a lot. We practiced our asses off, and we were fortunate enough to get hired to back up almost everybody that was living at the time. We got to play with them at festivals or make records with them or play gigs. It was just being at the right place at the right time. We were kinda the youngest musicians alive on the scene that got to play with Sam Chapman, Muddy Waters and just, you know, a real selection of people. Hanging out in Chicago playing with all these guys in storefront bars – you know, you go into these little bars and they’d have a bar down the length of the place and the band would be up in the window. The window is only about ten feet wide or something and they’ve got a piano up there. You’d come in the door and they’d say “Get your sewing machines out, boys!”, hahaha!
Shit, that’s cool. You won’t see that kinda shit today?
No, not really. Those days are gone, but the demographic of roots blues has been aging and we haven’t been really successful at bringing a big enough slice of young people into our roots music –at least to the live shows. Still, the whole country thing is pretty healthy. There’s a lot of young musicians finding roots that way– and the deadhead kids also work their way, or worm their way, through the roots of that music and end up doing some interesting things. I think the blues will come around again.
Its never left and its roots are based in West Africa….
Yeah, it is part of an unbroken chain. That’s what I always say. An unbroken chain that goes back further than any of us can even imagine. Sounds and noises and communicating with one another. So it feels good for me to be coming to Africa. I learned how to play from the grandchildren of slaves and those things that they gave me are– in a sense– a thing I’m bringing back to Africa. I’m not bringing it back in a real public way saying “Ok, this is it” but personally my spiritual mission as an artist traveling through the world… when I’m sitting there playing in South Africa I’m going to have a very, I think– I hope– grounded feeling. To be grateful that I’m able to be here doing that.
You’re not going up in Africa? You’re just touring South Africa? You’re not going to Ghana or Nigeria?
No, I’m not doing those this trip but I will come back.
You don’t seem like you’re the kinda person who is scared to travel to weird little places?
Oh, I’ve traveled all my life. What keeps me going is places on the map that I haven’t been to yet. I enjoy the travel a lot. And also, I never travel to a place not intending to come back. No matter how big or small. My life is scattered largely over the North American continent now, but there’s no one place that is more attractive than another.
So what made you move to Canada?
Oh well, I had a little boy here so I thought I’d make that move, and it was a good idea.
So it wasn’t a vision in 2006 when you thought “In ten year’s time we need to choose between these two presidential candidates. I’m getting the hell outa here!”
Hahaha! You never would have known back then! Now I’m a proud Canadian I’ve got a Canadian passport and its pretty good. Its a smart country and I tell people “Canadians don’t really know this, but Canadians and South Africans have a lot in common.”
The amount of doctors going from South Africa to Canada?
There’s a lot of doctors getting out. I know its not good but I think we’ll see doctors going back. I’m personally filled with a lot of optimism for South Africa. I think it could be one of the greatest countries in the next century. You know, there’s a little dream there that people have. I’m optimistic. I think you guys are gonna make it happen.
That’s cool that you believe in us. So your tour is called the National Steel Zulu Skies Blues Tour?
So you do this tour every year, but in the States?
I tour North America every year and I do at least a hundred shows back to back in Canada alone. So I play all ten provinces from coast to coast right up to the Arctic and then in the States I go right down to the Gulf Coast, all the central states, southern states and Eastern Seaboard. I do about 25 states. I do that every year.
Jissis, that’s hectic. That’s a lot of miles. Do you get tired of the road or is that now just your house for two thirds of the year?
Haha, it is a lot miles. I live on the road most of the year. I do about 250 shows a year.
That’s basically the whole year if you take Mondays away.
So, when you’re in South Africa, you’re starting off at the Canadian Embassy on the 3rd of November?
The High Commission. I don’t think you can smoke dope there yet, but it is legal in Canada now, hahaha! Maybe you can smoke a little bit at the High Commission? I don’t know!
So what are your plans after that? You’re obviously going to drive everywhere because you love the road so much.
After that I’m going to do about a week of shows within 5 or 6 hours from Johannesburg. I’ll just use it as my center. Sometimes I’ll stay over, sometimes I’ll just go back. So about a week, ten days in that area and then I head out to Bloemfontein. You guys call it Bloem. Then I’m gonna head down and hit Durban, and work my way across to Port Elizabeth hit across the desert, hit Prince Albert and some places in the Karoo. Then I come down the Atlantic coast in to Cape Town and do about ten days of shows there and work my way back down that coast again back to Port Elizabeth and hit the little places in between that I didn’t get. It is about 40 shows in about 45 days.
Shit, you’re really gonna do this all?
Well, I hope so, hahaha!
That is probably the ideal tour that any South African muso would like to do.
Well hopefully some of your musos would steal my schedule and do the same thing. Next year I’ll do a better job to get to places I didn’t get to this time. When you do small shows to make a living, you gotta do a lot of them. I make my living though volume sales. I play a lot of shows.
I’m definitely gonna see you at the “high” commission and really try to attend as many of your shows as I can while you’re here.
I’m gonna be so jet lagged when I get there. You wanna stay up until 7 in the morning with me?
I got no problem. So where can we check out your schedule for the tour.
Everything is up on zuluskies.blogspot.com