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

"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: Blues Bloodline

Vince Agwada, a guitarist of the highest caliber, has been a fixture on the Chicago music scene for over 25 years. As a teen he played in numerous local bands, playing an assortment of styles ranging from James Brown to Led Zeppelin to Frank Zappa. He got his start in the Blues hanging out at Theresa's, a world renown blues haven, and at Buddy Guy's Checkerboard Lounge, and received his blues education jamming with and backing journeymen players such as Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Magic Slim, Otis Rush, John Primer, Syl Johnson, Sammy Lawhorn, Louis Meyers, Johnny Littlejohn and the late Lefty Dizz, who was the first to let the teen sit in on his legendary "Blue Monday" jam sessions. Throughout the 1980s and 90s Vince toured the United States, Canada and Europe with many of Chicago's premiere acts including Bernie Mac, Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor, Zora Young, Jimmy Johnson, Son Seals, Junior Wells, Valerie Wellington, The Dells, Sugar Blue, Larry McCray, and Magic Slim as well as his own outfits, One Eyed Jax, and the Vince Agwada Band. In 1996 he was voted one of the top 40 Blues artists under 40 in the country by Living Blues Magazine.

As the 90s came to a close, Vince decided to take some time off from touring to complete the engineering degree he had abandoned back in 1981 when he opted to stay in Chicago and play the Blues rather than return to college after a summer break spent gigging in local clubs. Although not traveling as much during this period he remained active during these times focusing his energies on songwriting and performing as a sideman with Sugar Blue, Larry McCray, The Morris Ellis Orchestra, The Dells, Chideco Zydeco, and an occasional gig under his own name. With the release of his self-produced debut CD "Eyes of the City", Vince has managed to bring all of his influences both musical and technical into play and deliver an extremely powerful work that shines not only in its artistic but in its production values as well. With his powerful second CD, "Basic Blue" (2011), Vince has earned his place in the spotlight. With his trademark stinging guitar lines, husky voice, clever arrangements and compositions that combine elements of Blues, Jazz, Rock, and R&B, Vince stands poised to become a major player 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…

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!

"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."

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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