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Keb’ Mo’ on Four Decades of the Blues, Remembering African American History, Activism in Music and More

The Grammy award-winning post-modern blues maestro will be returning to India for the Mahindra Blues Festival this weekend

Jessica Xalxo Feb 05, 2020

The blues have played an instrumental role in shaping Keb' Mo's artistry and by extension his activism. Photo: Courtesy of artist

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For Nashville Grammy award-winning post-modern blues maestro Kevin Roosevelt Moore aka Keb’ Mo’, the love for the blues began at home. His late mother, Lauvella Cole, stacked mostly jazz records in their Los Angeles home — 12 to be precise — and some of them stayed with Mo’ and his siblings. From jazz vocalist Gloria Lynne’s 1963 album Gloria Lynne At The Las Vegas Thunderbird (With The Herman Foster Trio) to pop crooner Johnny Mathis’ 1958 compilation Greatest Hits to jazz musician Jimmy Smith’s 1964 LP Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf and more, Mo’ found plenty to listen to as a teenager taking to the guitar. “She opened the door for us to get into blues but there wasn’t some ongoing discussion about music in the house. Once the introduction was made, it was up to you to figure out if it was for you,” he says.

As he hit his late teens, Mo’ found himself listening to Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Bob Dylan, Iron Butterfly, Santana and a whole lot of Taj Mahal on his ‘64 Ford Falcon’s eight-track tape machine, unwittingly immersing himself in influences that would go on to shape his distinct and continually evolving sound. From the R&B rockbed of his debut album Rainmaker (1980) to Just Like You’s (1996) pop laced tunes to Keep It Simple’s (2004) soul leanings and beyond, the blues have always been at the heart of his works but Mo’ has never been afraid to bend, twist and turn genres on their heads. With a sonic repertoire that’s ever in flux, Mo’ brings notes of jazz, R&B, rock, pop and Americana to his Delta blues rhythms, brought to the fore by the kind of authentic songwriting one would only expect of an honest bluesman, while serving up licks, slides and melodies for days as witnessed on tracks such as “Soon As I Get Paid,” “France” and “Old Me Better.”

It’s no wonder then that the blues played an instrumental role in shaping the Grammy award-winning musician’s artistry and by extension his activism. Over 18 records and four decades of making music, there’s hardly an issue that Mo’ hasn’t spoken about. And if you’ve heard Keb’ Mo’s sound, you know it’s like listening to the story of America. “I just like to shed a light on truth, history and situations. I like to remind people of what is,” he says. 

Ask him where the drive to infuse his music with the reality of his experience came from, the want to speak truths of the past and to use his sound to advocate for awareness and reform in the present, and the artist says, “Listening to the blues was like a timeline of African American history. It put it in perspective of what was going on at the time.” With music, Mo’ grasped a sense of history through sound, voicing concerns about slavery, racism and immigration (“Oklahoma”, “This Is My Home”), politics and feminism (“Put A Woman In Charge”), the environment (“Don’t Throw It Away”) and more, especially on his 2019 record Oklahoma (which won the 2020 Best Americana Album Grammy award). “Music is the sound of that time. It just really reflects what was going on – you can hear it. Blues music has that. And when you look at the facts of African American music and you look at Sixties music or listen to Curtis Mayfield and Aretha Franklin, Motown, songs about the civil rights movement, songs about the experience of coming up out of the South and moving for a better life, it’s the sound of the times,” he says.

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According to Mo’, he’s a “blank musician or whatever.” He puts himself in no category, venturing that it’s all music with everybody using the same 11 notes. “I am a product of all the situations I encountered coming up in Los Angeles – mostly playing night clubs, school bands, calypso bands, cover bands, not having a gig and working a desk job and wishing I did have a gig! And then later on in life I discovered Delta blues, the roots music, country music, developed an appreciation of jazz and the Great American Songbook. It all factored into making me who I am,” he says, preferring to not cage himself in the stringent, demarcated lines of a category. Mo’ has always lived in a diverse music world and always will. He never pursued music after all, it pursued him. “We’re all just using them the best we can and in the culture we came up with. I’ve been living in a multicultural experience my whole life, so it was just organic to be exposed to and interested in all of those different sounds,” he says.

Mo’ has played alongside, collaborated with and learned from all the blues biggies. From Taj Mahal (the Grammy-winning 2017 collaborative album TajMo) and the late B.B. King (Mo’ joined the legend on stage in Washington D.C. for the ‘In Performance at the White House: Red, White and Blues’ set apart from supporting King on tour) to Buddy Guy (contributing to the 2005 LP Bring Em’ In as well as sharing the stage at various concerts) and more; this list is goes on. “One thing is I am still looking up to them – not sideways or down,” he maintains. Mo’ decided early on that he would do what the greats were doing, but that he would do it in his own way. “I listened to the different styles of the way people played and one thing I noticed is that they each had a different style and I don’t think that Robert Johnson was trying to play like Blind Blake, or that B.B. King was trying to play like Taj Mahal. They were all being their own unique selves within a genre and within a framework of society, and a culture that reflected the music,” he says.

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Even before he had a record deal in place by the late Nineties, Keb’ Mo’ was intent on doing well in the moment. “Everything is about the present. I can talk about the past or the future but the only thing that really exists is right now and that’s what I try to stay focused on,” he says, emphasizing the need for budding musicians to have fun with their sojourn into the blues. The artist doesn’t make compromises, priding himself on only doing the things he really likes, but voices an affliction about listening to past records. “It’s hard to listen to them because then I just start working on them again! It’s kind of torturous actually, because they’re not really for me – they’re for other people to enjoy and my job is just to make them,” he reflects in hindsight.

The blues maestro will soon be ticking off his second visit to India as he returns to headline Mumbai’s Mahindra Blues Festival (MBF) on February 8th and 9th alongside Buddy Guy, Los Angeles blues-rock outfit Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band and American roots rock band Larkin Poe, among others. And he’s making the best set list he possibly can with songs spanning titles from his latest release Oklahoma (which was followed by his holiday album Moonlight, Mistletoe & You in the same year) and from farther back as well. “One thing I really enjoyed the last time I played the Mahindra Blues Festival was meeting the people – the people that run the festival, the people of India, and of course Mr. [Anand] Mahindra himself. They were all such beautiful souls,” he says. Mo’ also has a message for those excited to see him play at the event, “Thank you. Thank you very much for coming, for listening, for opening up your beautiful country. Thank you.”

Click here to buy tickets for the Mahindra Blues Festival between February 8th and 9th at Mumbai’s Mehboob Studio. 

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