Interview with UK based bluesman Tom Attah - taking the music from the past and carrying it into the future

"Blues talks to people about common experience, people are able to project whatever they want to into the songs and sounds and poems. The power of blues and music is that it wants to include you, not shut you out."

Tom Attah: The Living Bluesman

Tom Attah is a strong and soulful performer of new and original acoustic blues material, based in the UK. Combining the raw power of Son House with the dense hypnotic rhythms of Howlin’ Wolf and the barrel-chested roar of the old blues shouters, Tom’s live shows take audiences on a journey from the Delta to the Download with 21st century intensity. Traditional and Transitional, Tom is the modern, living bluesman. Taking the music from the past and carrying it into the future, Tom has stories to tell and songs to play. This is dance music, this is strong music, and this is The Living Bluesman.

Born in the deep south of England, Tom Attah travelled North to study music in the Steel City of Sheffield at the end of the 20th century and has been based in Yorkshire for over a decade, travelling around the UK and Europe singing and playing his original acoustic blues. Tom's live shows are filled with energy, humour and stories that illustrate the origins of the blues and meanings of the songs and music. The last exciting months have featured performances throughout the UK and Europe at venues and major festivals.                                  Photo by Chris Saunders 2014

Tom has performed alongside Grammy award winner David "Honeyboy" Edwards, Toots & The Maytals, Connie Lush & Blues Shouter, Robin Trower, Folk legend Wizz Jones and the Oli Brown Band. Tom has also played several BBC regional radio sessions, has been featured on national Jazz FM and has made multiple independent radio appearances. Driving, rocking, heavy, delicate and relevant, Tom proves that powerful Blues and folk are alive and well with lyrics that resonate and a performance style that recalls the emotional rawness of Robert Johnson, the barrel-chested roar of Muddy Waters, the sophistication of Robert Cray and the simple poetry of Seasick Steve. Tom Attah will be in Athens, July 22 at BLUES FESTIVAL 2014 (Stage Volume 1).  

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

I learned that once you have made the connection to the music, it doesn’t let you go. By that I mean that I have had some tough times in my life, but the blues was there for me all the way through and they really helped and now when I play them I can look back and celebrate surviving those times. It’s a badge of honour. It’s a privilege to be able to help other people make their own connection to the music.

How do you describe Tom Attah sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

Honest and raw; people tell me that they enjoy the depth and flow of the music. You can only sing and play things the way you feel them so that’s the way I do it! My philosophy is to play it as you feel it and put my faith in the music. I’m not playing the music, if anything, the music is playing me!

Why did you think that the Blues Poetry music continues to generate such a devoted following?

Blues talks to people about common experience, people are able to project whatever they want to into the songs and sounds and poems.  The power of blues and music is that it wants to include you, not shut you out.

"The blues, when it first appears, is the state of the art at that point in time; that is how African-Americans reacted to their environment."

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

I am lucky to know some amazing musicians – the best jam I played in recently was in Holland with Katie Bradley and Steven Van Der Nat. I like to make space for other musicians rather than stamp all over the sound and I think that helps me whenever I play with someone else.

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

A lot of the people I play with are friends and so those meetings are always important; the meetings where you encounter someone who is listening and sharing, those are good for any musicians. You can learn that way, you can teach that way. The best advice I ever received was – “…slow down!”

Are there any memories from Toots Hibbert, Robin Trower, and Wizz Jones which you’d like to share with us?

There are many but I will say that in all cases, these very unique and talented people al had something in common – they were listening, and interested in what was happening. They were all very generous as far as they could be and very switched on and willing to take time as far as they could. Really important lesson. They were all the same in that way.

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

I don’t miss anything from the music of the past because we can still hear so much of it! I am concerned about the way musicians will make money in the future; I don’t see that subscription services will pay musicians as much as physical sales do. Aside from that – music is a part of what human beings do culturally so as long as we are a civilized species, there will be singers, there will be musicians.

Which memory from Honeyboy Edwards makes you smile?

I remember how patient he was with people asking him about Robert Johnson. I mean, he must have had that question for 40 years! I was impressed that he had a killer guitar and a Marshall half-stack amplifier.

People forget that the old delta players were on the cutting edge of technology, they were looking forward, not back.

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

I’d like musicians to be paid fairly from streaming and subscription services. In the UK, I’d like the government to start supporting the arts far more than they currently do.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Soul and continue to Jazz, Folk and Reggae music?

This is part of a continuum of black music-making and cultural generation. The blues, when it first appears, is the state of the art at that point in time; that is how African-Americans reacted to their environment. As time moves on, the environment changes, people change, and our response to our position in time and space evolves so that although the music might sound different and be categorised differently, there are very strong connections between the styles and genres.

Make an account of the case of the blues in UK. What are the differences from the American Blues scene?

I think that the UK blues scene is happening – it’s definitely there.  Like any scene, it can be hard but as long as you are prepared to work hard and have support and good music, you have as good a chance as anyone. The US is a big place. I think it’s even harder over there to make a living, but music was never a soft career option!

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

I think – either forward 150 years to see how people are living and what they are listening to – or back 2,000 years for the same reason!

Tom Attah - official website

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