Chicago-born bluesman Vince Agwada talks about Lefty Dizz, Muddy, Wolf, Koko, and the blues of West Africa

"Music is truly the universal language recognizing no language, social, racial, ethnic, class or political boundaries. Music is or at least can be a powerful force for healing and uniting people."

Vince Agwada: The Blues Bloodline

Vince Agwada, ace guitarist, composer, producer, and recording artist got his start in music at the world-renown Blues havens Theresa’s and Buddy Guy’s Checkerboard Lounge, where he cut his teeth observing and backing journeymen players such as Buddy Guy, Magic Slim, Otis Rush, John Primer, and the late Lefty Dizz, who was the first to let the precocious teen sit in on his now legendary “Blue Monday” jam sessions where the best of Chicago’s Bluesmen as well as international rock stars, including the Rolling Stones, George Thorogood, Joe Perry of Aerosmith and others would frequently come to jam with these Bluesmen whose music was the root of rock ‘n’ roll. Over the ensuing years Vince has toured internationally playing major venues and festivals both as a leader and with a veritable who’s who of the genre’s premiere acts including Bernie Mac the first mainstream comedian to tour with his own band, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Koko Taylor, The Mighty Dells, former Rolling Stone Sugar Blue, Zora Young, Jimmy Johnson, Son Seals, Magic Slim and Larry McCray. Industry-leading publication, Living Blues Magazine, once voted him one of the top 40 young Blues artists. The release of his highly acclaimed 2008 debut CD ‘Eyes of the City’ brought all of his influences into play and delivered an extremely powerful work that shone not only in its artistic values but in its production values as well.

The spring of 2011 saw the release of Vince’s much-anticipated sophomore effort ‘Basic Blue’. With that release he delivered another solid outing that showcased blazing guitar chops, gritty vocals and masterful songwriting. As a testament to his compositional prowess the opening track ‘Chi-Town State of Mind’ made it to the semi-finals in the 2011 International Songwriting Competition, a contest judged by such music industry luminaries as Bernie Taupin, Bruce Hornsby, Jeff Beck and Wynona Judd. The summer of 2019 brought the release of his third and most ambitious release, the meticulously crafted, “Light of Day”. Now a well-seasoned pro with three powerful CD offerings under his belt, several successful European tours, and a long string of stateside gigs, Chicago born - California based, Vince has earned his place in the continued evolution of the Blues.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

The Blues Culture has taught me many things about myself not only as an artist but more importantly as a human being. This music has brought me in touch with my own emotions and shown me how to more effectively channel them through art. This music has also figured immeasurably into my spiritual growth, provided me with many shoulders on which to stand, and given me an acute awareness that this wonderful thing called music comes not from but rather through us. We are merely conduits through which it can flow once we learn to get out of the way…

For me the Blues has far more meaning than I could ever put into words. From the moment I first heard this music it resonated something deep within me. It’s almost as if it’s embedded in my DNA. The Blues is at the foundation of everything that I do musically even if it is not always immediately apparent to the listener. Music is undoubtedly my salvation and I have no idea where I would be in life if I didn’t have it…

How do you describe the Vince Agwada sound and songbook? What characterizes your music philosophy?

If I had to describe my sound I would use words like eclectic, edgy, aggressive, perhaps progressive although by no means am I claiming to have invented anything new! As for my philosophy on music, my feeling is that as an artist my primary responsibility is to nurture whatever talents I might have been blessed with, to follow inspiration, and hopefully to produce works of meaning and significance to others. I really don’t see music so much in terms of genre but more so in terms of colors and emotions so when it comes to influences I’m all over the place. That being said I just try to follow ideas, as they come, to completion or at least take them as far as I can…

"The Blues Culture has taught me many things about myself not only as an artist but more importantly as a human being. This music has brought me in touch with my own emotions and shown me how to more effectively channel them through art."

How has the Blues culture and people influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

In the Blues community I found an extended family. Some of the older musicians were like mother and father-figures, and many of my peers have become lifelong friends, brothers and sisters... They have all taught me many lessons in life that helped shape the man I was to become and that I still carry with me to this day.

My experiences in the Blues have played a huge part in shaping my world view. Music is a unifying force that has the power to transcend race, ethnicity, political beliefs, borders. Through this music I have been blessed to have travelled to many countries, experienced many cultures, and have, over the years, developed relationships with people of all persuasions from just about every corner of the Earth.

Starting with music as a common-ground, I have come to see that, on a very basic level, people all over the world are essentially trying to achieve the same things in life: to carve out a comfortable existence for ourselves and our families, to see our children successfully launch, and to somehow make a difference in this world while we’re here.

What were the reasons that you started the Blues researches? Where does your creative drive come from?

I’m not sure exactly when the switch was flipped, I just know that I was drawn to the Blues at an early age. I would go to the public library in Chicago and listen to records by artists like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Lonnie Johnson, Leadbelly, a lot of early stuff, whatever they had. There was always something about this music that resonated within me. Over time, I discovered Chicago Blues, Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf and all,  and eventually found my way to Maxwell Street and places like Theresa’s and the Checkerboard. The rest, as they say, is history, or at least, my story...

My creativity is driven in large part by my desire to grow and evolve spiritually.  I believe that as I become more in tune with the universe, I become a better conduit for creative thought and ideas. As an artist, it is then my responsibility to shape these creative ideas into what I hope will be meaningful works of art.

How do you describe LIGHT OF DAY songbook and sound? What characterizes your new work in comparison to previous albums?

LIGHT OF DAY will always hold a special place in my heart. It was a huge undertaking for me and I am grateful to so many people for their wonderful contributions and support. We recorded tracks in Chicago, Pittsburgh, New Haven, Berlin, San Francisco, and the Eastern Bloc. I am so proud of this record! I am quite proud of all of my efforts but I like to think that in the context of a body of work, each project is or at least should represent, a progression from its predecessor. Perhaps it’s not for me to say, but I do think that this record, to some extent, reflects my evolution as a songwriter/storyteller and producer. I experienced a lot of upheavals in my life while I was making this record and I definitely think that some of the themes go perhaps a little deeper than I have in the past as a result.

Take for instance “Spirit”; the message in the song is that the desire for our lives to have meaning, the need to know that we made a difference in this world when we reach the end of our lives, is universal.  That song incorporates voices and instrumentation from around the world to help drive that point home. The fourth track, “I Wanna Fly” is radically different from anything else I’ve ever done. I’m using a ton of African instruments in that song. I tried to do it in a subtle manner so as not to sound contrived, so I kind of sneak things in over the duration of the song; it should be pretty obvious by the end though!

Like a lot of my songs, “I Wanna Fly” started out as a kick drum and slide guitar thing and just evolved from there over time. The final direction of that song actually resulted from a conversation I had one day with my former boss, friend, and mentor, Sugar Blue, during which he urged me to tap into my Nigerian roots a bit more. This is a start and I do intend to explore more in future projects...  I really wanted to take some chances, try some new things, and step outside of my comfort zone on this record. LIGHT OF DAY is definitely not a period piece or a concept album but sonically I wanted to pay homage to a lot of the production and recording techniques from many of the classic records that I grew up with. We incorporated as much analog gear as possible all throughout and mastered from tape.

From a production standpoint, LIGHT OF DAY is without a doubt the biggest thing I’ve done. I have strings on my prior releases but it was always my arrangements and me on keyboards. This time around, I had the pleasure and the honor of working with a very talented arranger, Erin Dalton, and a real string section which has been a career-long dream of mine. I really wanted to work with a choir on this project but it was just not feasible this time around. I was very fortunate however in having had the opportunity to work with Terri Lane who had both the chops and the patience required to come in and layer 30 or 40 tracks and build me a choir for the song “Friend”. Before this project I had always done my own background vocals so it was really a treat working with her plus she’s a way better singer than me so I picked up a few pointers too! She also appears on “Two Tons of Fun” and “Angelina”.

Are there any memories from the famous Maxwell Street which you’d like to share with us?

I started going to Maxwell Street before I learned to play well enough to play in public but it was just a fascinating place to be. The sights, the smells, the food, and of course the music! I did get to play there occasionally later on but never on a regular basis. There will never be another place like it!

"In the Blues community I found an extended family. Some of the older musicians were like mother and father-figures, and many of my peers have become lifelong friends, brothers and sisters... They have all taught me many lessons in life that helped shape the man I was to become and that I still carry with me to this day."

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

It would be nice to see the Blues get the esteem it truly deserves right here in America.

What has made you laugh and what touched (emotionally) you from the local scene?

Some of the best comedians on the planet are musicians. I have shared so many laughs with my comrades, too numerous to mention. The older musicians like Buddy Guy and Junior Wells always had hilarious anecdotes about people long since passed that were not only outrageously hilarious but were just as much history lessons in retrospect. Little windows into what came before…

What I find most touching from the Chicago scene is just how welcoming everybody was from the time I came around as a kid and then how non-judgmental my true friends have been over all the years of seeing me go through my ups and downs in life. 

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your paths in music circuits?

To cherish the gift of music, to be a man of your word, and to treat everyone with dignity and respect.

Do you consider the Blues a specific music genre and artistic movement or do you think it’s a state of mind?

I think it’s all of the above: the Blues can definitely be defined as a genre, but there are many offshoots, some of which continue to forge new ground, and, as we know, the Blues serves as the backbone, the foundation, the root of just about everything cool that’s ever happened in music. New music will come and the Blues will always be there somewhere in the mix…

For me, the Blues is definitely a state of mind. Apart from my family, my relationship with the Blues is the longest continuous relationship of my life. The Blues informs my every musical endeavor and it’s not in any conscious way, that aesthetic is just always there. Like the guy with the hammer to whom everything looks like a nail, I hear the Blues everywhere!

"What I find most touching from the Chicago scene is just how welcoming everybody was from the time I came around as a kid and then how non-judgmental my true friends have been over all the years of seeing me go through my ups and downs in life."

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice that has been given to you?

Tough question; I’d definitely have to say that meeting the late great Lefty Dizz as a teenager was one of the most consequential associations I’ve made over the years. Through Dizz I directly or indirectly met everybody; Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Louis Meyers, Son Seals, Billy Branch, the list goes on and on. I’ve met a lot of artists over the years but one meeting in particular that really stands out was R.L. Burnside whom I met at a festival in Fargo, North Dakota in the 90’s. We hung out for a couple of hours, I must have asked him 9000 questions! I was really drawn to him and his music; he was truly a wonderful man! He gave me his number and invited me to come down to Mississippi and go fishing with him. I was too intimidated to take him up on it though; I still kick myself over that… I’m a huge fan of both R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. There’s something about their music that really moves me in a very powerful way…

I’ve received advice from many artists over the years. Some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten was from the late Robert Covington during a very dark and low period in my life when I was frustrated with music, mostly the business part and politics, and about ready to give up. He pulled me aside in a club one night out of the blue and assured me that I had no reason to hang my head. Told me that I had always made wise choices in my musical direction and associations and encouraged me to keep moving in the direction that I was going in musically as I was making a difference.  It might not seem like much to someone else but at that precise moment in my life it was just what I needed to keep pushing forward…

Are there any memories from Koko Taylor, Son Seals, and Junior Wells, which you’d like to share with us?

Koko Taylor at a rehearsal one day said, “Vince, let me see your guitar”. In my mind I’m wondering what in the heck is she going to do with it but I took it off and handed it to her. She then rips into some of the most serious Gut-Bucket Blues I’ve ever heard anybody play; my jaw dropped to the floor! The woman could really play! Not very many people knew…

Son Seals’ Band was the first touring band I played in so I got to experience a lot of places and things that I never had up until that point. His bands were always extremely powerful and super tight so the bar was set pretty high for me at an early age. He also wrote most of his own material so he was definitely a role model for me in that regard as well.

Junior Wells was just a joy to be around on and off stage. During the time that I toured with him and Buddy Guy I learned that unlike his stage persona he was really a pretty laid back guy. He was also very intelligent and quite knowledgeable of history.                                                        

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

What I miss most is having all of the old cats around to watch and learn from. So many have left us but such is life… I’m happy to have crossed paths with so many greats; what a blessing! As for the future, I hope to see more young people learn to embrace this music not necessarily as their primary thing but more so as a foundation to build upon for whatever is to come. I definitely don’t want to see teenagers rocking cowboy hats, double-breasted suits, old guitars and tweed amps – that would be scary!

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I’d like to see more mainstream exposure and opportunities for Blues/Roots Music artists. Freddie King did the Super Bowl in 1972 and as far as I know that kind of exposure has not happened for anyone else since.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues from West Africa to United States and around the world?

It’s very difficult to draw direct lines back to specific individuals or regions as the Africans that were brought over came from many different regions and we have very little information as to what their music sounded like. In addition they were often split up once they got here. We do know that certain instruments such as slide guitar, the banjo, and diddley bow have their origins in Africa. As a Nigerian I am naturally drawn to and deeply curious about African Music so this is a subject that is of great interest to me. I’m currently reading a book called ‘Africa and the Blues (American Made Music)’ by Dr. Gerhard Kubik that offers some very interesting theories and insights on the subject.  He’s done some incredible fieldwork both in Africa and the American South over the last 50 years or so and published an incredible number of works. I just discovered him and his work while researching the subject online a few weeks ago. He’s about 80 years old now and I do hope to meet him at some point. He has worked in collaboration with Dr. Moya Aliya Malamusi whom I would also love to meet at some point and who himself has published a lot of works on African guitar styles. Between the two of them I plan on doing an awful lot of reading this winter – time to start stocking up on firewood! J

What has made you laugh and what touched (emotionally) you from Muddy, Little Walter and Howlin Wolf?

Muddy Waters: There is a certain power in the early Muddy Waters stuff, tunes like ‘Walking Blues’, ‘She Moves Me’, and ‘Louisiana Blues’ that reaches me in a deeply emotional way. I can’t really put into words what I feel but it’s like something comes over me when I hear this stuff still to this day; I literally have to stop whatever I’m doing at the moment – awesomely powerful music!

Little Walter: Apart from the fact that he could play his ass off Little Walter changed the music significantly in so many ways. He also wasn’t afraid to push the envelope when it came to form. I really love his songwriting…

Howling Wolf: The Wolf had a musical sophistication and rhythmic sense that to me was head and shoulders above anything else from that era at least that I have ever heard. He would go places rhythmically that no one else of that era would go. I love his music deeply, have just about everything he recorded, and binge out on his stuff for weeks at a time fairly frequently. Hearing his music for the first time it was like the music reached out and grabbed me in a big bear hug and it hasn’t let go of me yet!

"What I miss most is having all of the old cats around to watch and learn from. So many have left us but such is life… I’m happy to have crossed paths with so many greats; what a blessing! As for the future, I hope to see more young people learn to embrace this music not necessarily as their primary thing but more so as a foundation to build upon for whatever is to come."

What is the impact of Blues music and culture to the racial and socio-cultural implications?   

The impact of this art form on the international scale is immeasurable. I hear from musicians from every corner of the planet all the time. In my travels I have been extremely humbled by the high regard that people outside of America have for this music. The Blues also speaks to the power and resilience of the human spirit. Out of some of the worst conditions ever imposed on human beings came this beautiful music that has literally changed the world. I believe that people everywhere can relate to that. I’ve met politicians, surgeons, movie stars, bartenders, waitresses, truck drivers, and chemists, people from all walks of life at gigs with the common thread being that they all love the Blues…

Music is truly the universal language recognizing no language, social, racial, ethnic, class or political boundaries. Music is or at least can be a powerful force for healing and uniting people. I really hope to see music utilized on a much larger scale towards those ends in hopes of perhaps nudging us toward a more peaceful path someday…

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day?

I would want to go back to the earlier days of the slave trade in the Americas. Conditions were deplorable for the Africans of course so I’m sure one day would be more than enough. Just the same I would like to hear what our music was like at a time when we were not so far removed from our culture. A time when we still remembered…

Vince Agwada - Official website

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