An Interview with Calatan blueswoman Big Mama Montse: A Priestess of European Blues scene

"I learned how to recognize my deepest emotions and express them without shame and with sincerity. To me, blues is the root from which I take some kind of substance to live..."

Big Mama Montse: Big Voice and Soul

Montserrat “Big Mama” Pratdesaba was born at St Quirze de Besora (Catalonia) in 1963, and was nicknamed Big Mama at Barcelona's legendary "Cova del Drac" club where her career and love for the blues began. She has participated in numerous concerts and Jazz and Blues Festivals. Big Mama celebrates 25 years in Blues circuit with her new album: BIG MAMA "25th ANNIVERSARY" & TALLER DE MÚSICS ALL STARS

Her discography includes: BIG MAMA & THE CRAZY BLUES BAND BLUES ALL OVER (2012), BIG MAMA BLUES ROOTED (2005), BIG MAMA & JOAN PAU CUMELLAS EN EL NOM DE TOTS (2003), BIG MAMA & JOAN PAU CUMELLAS STIR THE POT (2001), BIG MAMA with JOAN PAU CUMELLAS & MIGUEL TALAVERA TABLEAU DE BLUES (2000), BIG MAMA ELECTRIC BAND SER O NO SER (1998), BIG MAMA & VÍCTOR URIS EL BLUES DE L'OMBRA BLAVA (1996), BIG MAMA with VÍCTOR URIS & AMADEU CASAS EL BLUES DE LA INFLACIÓ (1994), BIG MAMA AND THE BLUES MESSENGERS (live at la Boîte) (1993,) BIG MAMA AND THE BLUES MESSENGERS BLUES, BLUES, BLUES! (Recorded in 1992 but published in 1995), and BLUES REUNION '90 (1990)

Her most outstanding discography collaborations are: L´HARMÒNICA COIXA BLUES BAND WALKING BLUES, LA VELLA DIXIELAND with BIG MAMA  and JOSEP Mª FARRÀS RAGTIME, FUEGO  LET´S PLAY THE BLUES, LOTI LEWIS ECHOES OF HEARTBEATS, CIUTADANES PEL CANVI, LES CANÇONS DE TEMPS ERA TEMPS, NEW ORLEANS BLUE STOMPERS   HELLO SATCHMO! THE LOUIS  ARMSTRONG MUSICAL STORY, LA LOCOMOTORA NEGRA SWING ALS 30 ANYS, VÍCTOR URIS DE LADO A LADO, AMADEU CASAS STROLLIN´ BAND, BLUES AROUND THE WORLD  - PUTUMAYO RECORDS, ESCLAT GOSPEL SINGERS FROM ROOTS TO HEAVEN, PACTANDO CON EL DIABLO - HOMENAJE A ROBERT JOHNSON, LA LOCOMOTORA NEGRA & FRIENDS THE JAZZ ROOM/COVA DEL DRAC SESSIONS, ÑACO GOÑI BLUES CON LOS COLEGAS VOL. II, and THE DUMOUSTIER STOMPERS 1989-2009 ON STAGE

Since 2008 Big Mama collaborates with the magazine Blues & Co with her "Interviews Imaginaries" to the most important Blues Ladies in the blues history: Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, Alberta Hunter, Sippie Wallace, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Memphis Minnie, Elitzabeth Cotten, Big Mama Thonton, Helen Humes, Lizzie Miles, Katie Webster, Koko Taylor, etc.   (Photo by Ángel Marín)

 

Interview by Michael Limnios

 

What do you learn about yourself from the blues, what does the blues mean to you?

I learned how to recognize my deepest emotions and express them without shame and with sincerity. To me, blues is the root from which I take some kind of substance to live...

 

                                                                                    Photo by Lluís Lluiski

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD BLUESWOMAN and SONGWRITER?

The hardest and saddest experiences also make me aware of the moments of joy as well as people suffering. I think empathy is one of the virtues of the "songwriters" as put themselves in the shoes of others and then, if they have the talent to express it with poetry it is a wonderful gift. I am not a "good blueswoman" or a good "songwriter" but I appreciate the good intention of the question!

 

How do you describe Big Mama sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

Well, in my early days as a blues performer I sang everything that I liked, trying to find my own voice while respecting the originals. Later, I took a deep process of reflection to find myself on my music and it motivated me to write my own songs. Then, I needed to expose my points of view from the perspective that art is transformative and that it could impact on the society. Sometimes I experienced a sense of liberation, thinking that love could redeem Humanity. At the present time I find inspiration in many of the injustices in the world caused by inequalities and violence, and I think that blues is the feeling (with rhythm) that can express all of it.

How do you get inspiration for your songs & what do you think is the main characteristic of your personality that made you a songwriter?

It is difficult to explain because inspiration never occurs to me by the same way... I have many songs that are autobiographical, that means that they talk about things that happened to me. Those ones are the result of a psychological need to ease the pain and clean my soul... I have also some songs that talk about a social problem, and I build them inspired by an article or some documentary, some news I've seen on television, etc... However, I have some humorous songs that I conceived practicing with the musicality of the lyrics and that they invite to have fun... In general, the main feature that made me write songs is a need that pushes from within to get expression, as a personal way of exorcism or from some reality that I try to reveal.

                                                                       Photo by Juan Miguel Morales

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the blues music?

One of the musicians who "taught me the blues" was the American harmonicist Johnny Mars, who in the late 80s was based in London and used to come to perform in Barcelona at times. We became friends and I booked him to play with my band... that's how I learned from him the "secrets" of the Blues. Johnny has an immense performing live power and he shared with me his spiritual preparation before going to the stage. At that time he was a follower of a Japanese branch of Buddhism and he did a ritual to enter on a state of consciousness before appearing in front of the public. I was with him when he lit some incense and recited mantras while maintaining a kind of rosary in his hands. All that was very crucial for me, for it was a sort of initiation... Johnny Mars made me conscious that something important happens when you go on stage, as it gives you some power and you have to learn how to use it with nobility.

I must say that I also have learned a lot by listening the music of some artists that I admire, including Johnny Adams, Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Etta James, Big Mama Thornton, Albert Collins, Alberta Hunter, Brownie McGhee, Big Bill Broonzy, Lonnie Johnson, Rev. Gary Davis, Helen Humes, Jimmy Witherspoon, Bessie Smith, etc., and that I've read a lot of books and articles about the social and historical context in which many of these artists have developed his artistry. I think that all those readings also helped me to understand about what is the blues. Some of the musicians that influenced me in the present days with his artistic personality are Taj Mahal, Keb'Mo' and Michael Hill, and by following their career I learned to find my own ways.

 

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

One of the most beautiful and magical moments was when I received an email from Putumayo Records asking me if I would like to participate on the benefit album "Blues Around The World" (2006) to help the Music Maker Blues Foundation. That made me feel valued and useful, especially in a period that I was having a bad time. Of all records that I sent to Putumayo, the company chose a song that I had recorded with my friend Victor Uris, harmonica player, who was the person who helped me when I had real hard times in 1993. The fact to contribute with our music to the album "Blues Around The World" helped us both... And when we saw all the artists featured on the disc (Taj Mahal, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Bibb Habib Koité, Rory Block, Maria Muldaur, Otis Spann, etc.) we cried with joy...

 

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?

I've experienced some intense and beautiful periods in my life but I find the present moment very exciting. Oh, yes, definitely... Soon I will celebrate my 25 years as Big Mama Montse and I'm preparing a great band of All Stars to make a new record. I am also very happy with my currently band "Big Mama & The Crazy Blues Band" for all we've shared and I hope we can continue in the future too...

 

How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?

When I started there wasn't so many Blues Festivals in Europe and now it's full of them everywhere!... There are a wide variety of Festivals: some work with rich sponsors and are really crowded, and some are organized by small associations that have the spirit that music serves to fraternize... I think that the current crisis has caused that intermediaries works as managers, that is, more closely to the artists. The agencies choose carefully the projects they want to represent, adjusting their fees. Today there are more chances to play but there are also a lot of good musicians that want to do it!

 

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?

Well, my advice is that they believe in what they do and that they are critical about their art, listening to themselves and trying to be good musicians and artists, feeling the rhythm and groovin' together. They should also know that it is crucial not to let anybody to manipulate them... it is important to be independent and able to manage their own career. It is therefore important to get some resources by themselves, using their imagination to find solutions to all the problems.

 

                                                                                    Photo by Ángel Marín

Are there any memories from the road with the blues, which you’d like to share with us?

I lived very pleasant moments with several bands with which I sang. One of them is The Harmonica Coixa Blues Band, the band of my friend Víctor Uris from Mallorca Island, with whom I collaborate between 1989-91 but our friendship has lasted till now and we are very happy every time we met... Another band that we enjoy very much playing together was Big Mama & The Mouserockers (1995-96) because we were very good friends in and out of the stage and we laughed a lot... I also enjoyed when I sang with the veteran Catalan jazz orchestra "La Locomotora Negra" with whom I lived pretty memorable concerts in large venues and Jazz Festivals... Another very nice experience that I've lived this year has been touring "Bluesin' The Jazz" with the Original Jazz Orchestra, a show where teachers and students of the school "Taller de Músics" from Barcelona participate as members of a great big band. We had the pleasure to pay tribute to the Blues Ladies with some very well done big band arrangements... I should say too that I also have had some great moments at Therri'Thouars Festival, organized by my friends from the French magazine Blues & Co for which I write. Every year I join Blues & Co team and the musicians who are booked at the Festival. This 2012 edition was especially fantastic, enjoying a great time of fellowship with every member of the organization as well as the participating musicians. It was exciting and we spent it extremely well... In august 2012 we have also had great moments in Sem Blues Festival (France), where we played as Big Mama & The Crazy Blues Band and it was funny and full of intense energy in a very beautiful environment...

 

What is the best advice a bluesman ever gave you?

I recently had the great pleasure to interview Keb 'Mo' for Blues & Co, during his European tour "The Reflection". At one point I asked him: "Do you consider yourself a brave person?" and I was moved by his answer "Listen: brave is not like you have to be big and strong, you know... It's like willing to show yourself... ". I think it's a very bright advice... isn't it?

 

                                                                                    Photo by Nuria Bonell

How do you describe your contact to people when you are on stage and what compliment do you appreciate the most after a gig?

I feel like part of a communion. The musicians have the privilege to be a small spark that can ignite a great fire, and sometimes we get it! When this happens, the feelings I have are indescribable! The compliment that I like the most after a gig is when someone says that the music has made them feel happiness and joy, and you can appreciate it with a smile in their face!

 

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

When we played in a club in Barcelona called La Boîte (which was managed by the Mas brothers) they use to book some Blues greats with whom we could sometimes do a little jam session... Big Mama & The Blues Messengers played at La Boîte's opening and I was booked there between 1991 and 1995, singing once a week with "my" different bands, basically Big Mama & The Blues Messengers and Big Mama & The Mouserockers. That means that we were some kind of "Blues Band of the House" and it was quite often that we jam with almost all the blues artists that play there.

I remember the day that Johnny Heartsman (piano player) was in La Boîte and there was also the concert of Albert Collins at L'Hospitalet de Llobregat Blues Festival, near Barcelona. Anna Mas (owner of La Boîte) and I went to that Festival and when Albert Collins' concert had finished we took with us to La Boîte the keyboard player of the band, a man named Bobby that had on his fingers all the gospel tradition. Arriving to La Boîte, Bobby was invited to play Hammond organ with Johnny Heartsman and his band and it was spectacular, and I was invited to sing too...

I remember Johnny Heartsman's bassist dancing behind me laughing and enjoying the show! We had a terrific good time! That night it was a fantastic blues party in La Boîte! I also remember that in January 1995 I was asked to sing with Melvin Taylor and his band at Nova Jazz Cava in Terrassa and I had a real good time with them in and out the stage... Concerning to the most memorable gigs that I've had, I must tell that I'm a very fortunate person because I've had many with all of the bands and duos that I've participated and even when I played alone.

But I remember particularly in 1995, when I did an european tour with an orchestra that comes from Argentina named La Porteña Jazz Band and we played at Jazz in Marciac Festival (France) after Winton Marsalis, Alvin Queen and Pierre Boussaguet at the Council Square... can you imagine? Everybody was really captivated by the artistry of those great musicians and you can feel it in people's faces. We did a wonderful concert, and I also remember another one I did with this jazz orquestra at Greek Theater in Orange that was spectacular!!... All that makes me think about another concert that I did in 2008 at the opening of the Mas i Mas Festival at Barcelona's Greek Theater with Esclat Gospel Singers... we had a great time and we felt all the energy of the public returning back to us...

Another nice gig was when I sang with The New Orleans Blue Stompers at San Sebastián Festival (Spain) on 2010, playing tribute to Louis Armstrong. We all arrived at time to do the soundchek and we had to start without even time to change our clothes... but the spirit of the Ambassador of Jazz was within us and we enjoied so much the show, that was in front of the seaside at sunset time... It was very beautiful and it helped us to connect with the people that were so much delighted with our performance that they stopped us on the street to tell us about it during the rest of the Festival!

Some other joyful gigs I had were with Joan Pau Cumellas, a tremendous harmonica player that we've been playing together in a lot of projects. We have played everywere and all the gig have been always fantastic, but particularly when we were in France at Cognac Blues Festival, or Les Harmonicales, or Le Pouliguen... people applauded us even when we were off the stage to see the other gigs! It was unbelievable! I've been also working with Joan Pau on a project to teach the blues to children from 6 to 13 years and we call it "Blues at Schools". Since 2007 we've played for about 40.000 boys and girls in Catalunya and we have enjoyed every one of those gigs!! We started with this musical adventure when the Association of Blues Festivals in Catalunya proclaimed me as BluesCat Artist 2007. For more than four years Joan Pau and I have been playing for children daily in some theaters full of those nice little persons!! They are the future and I'm sure that there'll be a lot of new harmonica players in the next years!!!

Ha, ha... I have also had a wonderful experience when I've played with La Locomotora Negra at Barcelona Jazz Festival and at Terrassa Jazz Festival. I've also had some beautiful times singing at this Festival with Big Mama & The Mouserockers on 1996 and when I played there on 1995 with my band Big Mama, that includes a superb catalan piano player called Ignasi Terraza. With this band we also enjoyed all the gigs, but particularly one at Barcelona's University, with Ignasi Terraza on piano, Aljosa Mutiç on tenor sax, Xavier Maureta on drums and Rai Ferrer on double bass... It was one of the most energetic blues concerts I've ever lived! The fire was on! Sometimes I even find someone who tells me, with a smile in the face, that he/she was in that auditorium that day, which was so crowded that many people had to stay out... isn't it wonderful?

 

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES

I think that Blues exists because it expresses a universal feeling. Stylistically probably it will change and get new influences... My hope is that the Blues endures and evolves, providing new ways and originality but keeping the spirit of its creators in the past.

Do you think that your Blues are as it started out all these years ago or are you pointing in a new direction?

Well, honestly I believe in the words of your Greek philosopher Socrates that said: "The more you know, the more ignorant you are". I mean, during this years I've heard a lot of Blues and I have also ventured into different styles to find my own voice, learning so many things and sharing many experiences with a lot of people... But the more you live you also realize that the essence is very simple and in Blues, the emotional power is something that comes from the heart, not from the complexity of playing... So, although I`ve been searching in different directions, I always come back within myself.

When we talk about Blues, we usually refer to memories of the past. Do you believe in the existence of real Blues nowadays?

People suffer everywhere and I think that the Blues, as a feeling, is truly alive. But as a musical style it is harder to affirm, because some people tend to think they're playing Blues when they are actually playing rock... There are also some wonderful artists that play Blues in a context of modernity but maintaining the roots. I really think the Blues is alive and that creativity is possible, but that originality is a matter of genius. And unfortunately there are not so many geniuses...

Which incident of your life you‘d like to be captured and illustrated in a painting?

There's a work of art by Miquel Barceló that could illustrate a stage in my life where I had a feeling of going on a boat upstream struggling to take forward a project. This painting is "Contracorrent" (crosscurrent) ant it was realized on 1991. This period was when we were playing with the band Big Mama & The Blues Messengers, at a time when we were some rare "specimens" playing the music of some people with a different culture than ours, in an anachronistic age and with the only support of the people who came to listen... I love this tableau and I think that it symbolically express how we felt then...

 

                                                                                 Photo by Águstín Bertol

Make an account for current realities of the case of the blues in Catalunya. Which is the most interesting period in local blues scene and why? What mistake of local blues scene you want to correct?

In Catalonia, the blues has experienced periods of ups and downs, with good moments where concerts were fully crowded, and other times when the blues didn't interest to the majority and only a few passionates were keeping the torch for possible new generations. A good time was between late 80s to mid-90s, where there were some very good local bands and when some promoters brought a lot of great international blues names. Nowadays there's also a good moment because we have diverse associations and radio programs that support blues and also the Barcelona Blues School. The problem that we've had in Catalonia for a so many years has been the poor cultural politics of Catalonia's Government, who spent millions to promote a sort of music called "rock català" (Catalan Rock) and that was kind of pop rock sung in Catalan without substance and a great mediocrity. This ongoing support with public funds to this kind of music was a very strong competition for the creators of other musical styles...

 

Why did you think that the BLUES in Catalunya continues to generate such a devoted following?

I think there are some very good musicians who love what they do and there are also organizations and individuals that support this music, such as Barcelona Blues Society, Bad Music Blues, Red Hot Blues, the Capibola Association, Barcelona Blues Festival, La Hora del Blues, Potablava Blues, Melomania.cat, T'agrada el Blues?, Festival de Blues de Cerdanyola, etc., and also thanks to the educational experience of the Barcelona Blues School.

 

From the musical point of view is there any difference and similarities between: bluesman & blueswoman?

Well, generally, blueswomen have stronger and powerful voices than bluesmen because they've had more difficulties to be heard. This can be seen listening to voices from the time of the Empress of the Blues, where blueswomen had to sing amid jazz orchestras, to the Queen Koko Taylor's concerts at the very noisy clubs of the South Side of Chicago, or many other voices like Big Mama Thornton's, Marva Wright, Etta James, etc. Blueswomen had to be very courageous to be respected... On the other hand, usually blueswomen are featured as vocalists rather than instrumentalists, although today there are many extraordinary guitarists and pianists. Regarding talent, I think blueswomen who have excelled are excellent, as his selection process has been very hard because of the adverse conditions they have had to live in a very competitive male context...   (Photo by Manolo Urbano)

 

Which things do you prefer to do in your free time? What is your “secret” DREAM? Happiness is……

I like swimming, walking, reading, going to a concert, cooking, eating in a good restaurant, being with my friends, etc... My dream is to travel a lot and live in different places for a while to understand the diverse idiosyncrasies of people and their languages... I think that Happiness is being aware of what you have and what you are, and thank life for the nice opportunities!

 

How you would spend a day with Elizabeth Cotten? What would you say to Bessie Smith? What would you like to ask Big Mama Thonton?

Oh, let's see... Well, with Elizabeth Cotten I would probably love to walk in the fields and talk about days when music was transmitted only from one to another and traditions were something festive. And if it was possible, I'd love to get home and listen to Libba play guitar with her extraordinary skill and ask her about the origin of "Freight Train"... Talking about Bessie Smith, well, I would like to invite her to eat some spicy pig foot! And after that, I would tell The Empress that her voice is the most beautiful and fascinating one than anyone has ever heard!... And if I could talk to Big Mama Thornton I'll tell her that my nickname is Big Mama Montse! I guess that she'll laugh! Ha, ha... I would like to ask her about what happened the day she wrote "Ball and Chain" and it would be great if we can talk for a long time about her life... And to all of them, I would love to give a big hug and thank them for their art and for the moments of pleasure that they gave us listening to their music, and for opening many new ways, and for having been such a great inspiration...

 

Big Mama Montse's official website

 

                                                                                   Photo by Antoni Puñet

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