Q&A with virtuosity artist Tom Shaka - deeply inspired by Blues pioneers, doesn't merely play the Blues... he lives it

"Music can uplift and heal. What a breath of fresh air this grassroots music is, especially in today's modern, fast-paced, upside-down, plastic, digital world. But music (if we can even call it that) can also harm."

Tom Shaka: Mr. Delta Thunder

Tom Shaka, an American Bluesman of Sicilian ancestory, began singing and playing the guitar at the age of eleven. Born 1953 in Middletown, Connecticut, U.S.A., he is known today for his musical versatility and virtuosity. Besides singing and playing the guitar, he is also proficient at harmonica, ukulele, mandolin and one-string-git-fiddle. Deeply inspired by Blues pioneers such as Charley Patton, Robert Johnson and John Lee Hooker, to name but a few, he began his career in the early 1970's. It was, and continues to be, the above-mentioned artists as well as musicians like Ray Charles, Taj Mahal, Snooks Eaglin, and especially his personal friends and musical partners David "Honeyboy" Edwards and Louisiana Red who have significantly influenced his own personal Blues-style. Whoever has had the opportunity to experience Tom Shaka live on stage, knows that he doesn't merely play the Blues... he lives it.      (Tom Shaka / Photo © by Alex Küstner)

His music is passionate and intense, raw and authentic. His left foot taps and stomps out the rhythm of the songs as, sweat drenched, he celebrates the spirit of the Blues. Today, Tom Shaka lives in the Lüneburger Heide, in the north of Germany and enjoys a reputation as one of the premier solo Blues acts in the international Blues-scene. Up til now his musical travels have taken to countries across Europe, as well as in the U.S. Tom Shaka released his first LP in 1979. Since then two more LP's and a dozen CD's have been released on various labels. In 2013 he celebrates his 40th stage anniversary and his 60th birthday. In October of 2012, he released his current CD "DELTA THUNDER-The Field Recordings" on BLIND LEMON RECORDS. This is his first release since five years and was recorded by renowned Blues researcher and photographer, Axel Küstner. The CD has garnered positive acclaim not only from personal fans, but from the music press and Blues community in general.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

Well I'm not sure that the Blues/Roots of today is really a counterculture. I also observe certain attitudes which seem to me to be pretty much mainstream. But personally, I feel that this music/genre offers an outlet to express unlimited emotion and feeling. It is also a vehicle to address whatever is on my mind. Here one is free to also address themes and topics of a social/political nature, as well as regular good-time stuff. As I recently told an audience, "Blues is about life, with all of it's ups and downs, joys and sorrows, victories and disappointments, with no theme being taboo. It's about authenticity. Brownie McGhee said that "Blues is truth." I would also add that, "Blues is freedom."

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

As for my sound, I would say that it has that raw and rough edge to it. The old stuff has had the greatest influence on me, and it is just a natural part of my performance. As for my songbook (repertoire), I mix all kinds of colors, shades, styles and influences into my presentation. Whether it be a Tango such as "Kiss of Fire" or some other Spanish/Latin tune, or an old Rock n' Roll tune (I'm talkin' about 1950's style Rock n' Roll). To me there is Rock, which is not really me cup of tea, and then there is Rock n' Roll. They are two different things. Basically, I play anything and everything that I like. I might mix in some Swing or some Gospel or some Ragtime, or some Boogie, or an old Love-song. It's all good. And then I'll get back into the real raw Delta Blues or Chicago Blues and the audience is also ready for it again. I always keep going back to the well to drink from that rich, deep, hard Blues. But to me, it is somehow all Blues (even so-called non-Blues) because I approach it and play it all with the same soul, feeling, passion and intensity. I just love mixing it up. I guess that’s why some of my favorite musicians who have been big inspirations, besides the old downhome guys (and even some gals) from the distant past, are musicians who mix it up and play whatever they like. People like Taj Mahal, Snooks Eaglin, Ray Charles, James Booker and Jellyroll Morton (listen to Jellyroll's "Library of Congress" recordings with John Lomax from the late 30's... what a document!!!). In fact, a lot of people don't realize that even guys like Robert Johnson (and others from his era), played old pop songs on occasion. Lots of those guys were songsters, even in cases where their recorded output was strictly Blues. That is also more or less where I come from.

"As I recently told an audience, "Blues is about life, with all of it's ups and downs, joys and sorrows, victories and disappointments, with no theme being taboo. It's about authenticity. Brownie McGhee said that "Blues is truth." I would also add that, "Blues is freedom." (Photo: Tom Shaka, 2011)

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Over the decades there have been lots of experiences, meetings and highlights which have been important. The first time I came to Europe and stayed for several years (in the late 70's and early 80's), I met and became friends with Tony Sheridan. His story is connected with the Beatles from back in the early 60's in the Hamburg Star-Club days. Anyway, Tony had a significant influence on me, not only in inspiring me musically. One early piece of advice from him was... "Just do your thing." By the way, both of our names have the initials T.S. An interesting "coincidence" huh?

Of course, some of the people I opened up shows for back in the days, were also important. Probably Taj Mahal (one of my all-time favorites) is at the top of this list. He told me back in 1980..."You can't lose with what you use."

My musical and personal friendships with David "Honeyboy" Edwards and Louisiana Red are amongst the most important. They both had a great influence on me, not only musically, but beyond that. During the first show of the first tour I ever played with Honeyboy (in Switzerland) in the year 2000, he told me..."You're the best I've heard acoustically, just keep on doin' it." Of course, I already knew that I had to keep on doing it, but still, his words meant alot to me. I guess that during his long life, he had seen many of his buddies give up and quit performing. It can be a tough line of work to be in. Like a professional boxer, one has to be born for it. And even then, most professional boxers, as with professional musicians, aren't necessarily living on "Easy street." In other words, many are struggling to make ends meet.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Lots of memories and stories to tell. Too much to get into right here. Perhaps I'll release some of them in book format someday, however I'll very briefly touch upon one story right now. It was when Tony Sheridan and I got into a barroom-brawl (fight) with a couple of other guys, following my farewell show just outside of Hamburg in 1983. My family and I were relocating back to the States and had flights booked for the next day (we ended up settling down and living in Austin, Texas for 6 years). Anyway, someone called the police and they hauled Tony and I off to the police station in the middle of the night. To make a long story short, we ended up giving the cops a private concert and they ended up letting us go. We sang our way out of jail. Of course, I'm leaving out lots of the juicy details. You'll just have to wait for the book, I guess.

"Let's all make the best out of where we are right here and right now. As I sometimes say, the whole world has got the Blues and doesn't even know it. When we play Blues music with heart and soul, thats a natural medicine. As Mr. Hooker rightfully said, "Blues is a healer." (Tom Shaka and Janice Harington, "House Full Of Blues" at the Frederikshavn Blues Festival 2012 / Photo © by Frank Nielsen)

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

What do I miss nowadays regarding the Blues of the past? Well, time marches on and things change, and that's just the way it is. So, it's not about living in the past. Everyone can play what they like, the way they like. I don't follow the scene so closely anymore the way that I used to, but that being said, one thing that bothers me is that the volume seems to be increasing. I realize that the world has gotten louder, but sometimes the music is just too damn loud. Too much Bluesrock for my taste. The old Blues (timeless Blues) isn't overly loud. Even the early electric bands weren't real loud. But it grooved! The real Blues is much warmer and just has a completely different groove than Rockblues. I like to feel a lot of space, a lot of room. The louder it is, the more cluttered it becomes. What is the point of having to yell to be heard? That's what I love about performing primarily as a soloist, or occasionally in acoustic orientated small combos, such as a duo or trio. Having that space allows for more sensitivity, which helps to bring out one's best performance.

As far as the future of the Blues is concerned, I have no fears. This is timeless music and so it will continue. My hope is that musicians increasingly connect with the heart and realize that music is more than just entertainment and business. Of course, it IS showbusiness, but I think it is important to understand that it is also more than that. These are vibrations we're dealing with, so hopefully we will understand the higher purpose and responsibility of music and of playing music as a force for upliftment, not only for ourselves, but for the immediate audience and beyond. To be conscious/aware of using it wisely.

I've recently become aware of a relatively young traditional Jazz/Blues band called "Tuba Skinny" based out of New Orleans. They usually perform with seven or eight musicians. They really tap into the beauty of this music and harmonize wonderfully. Just one great example of a larger formation who play with real skill and reverence for the music and tradition, always sensitive and uncluttered without being overly loud.

What would you say characterizes European Blues scene in comparison to US local scenes and circuits?                                (Tom Shaka, 2014 / Photo © by Andreas Grob)

Well I haven't lived in the U.S. since quite a long time, so I don't know how accurately I can answer this question. Generally speaking (of course there are exceptions) I've always had the impression that European audiences tend to listen more/better. Perhaps it has something to do with the much older European culture and traditions. I mean, in the States it's not unusual for the television to be going while the band or soloist performs. Usually some kind of sports on T.V.  That’s how it already was decades ago and presumably it has gotten even worse nowadays, especially with these big flat-screens. Although things in Europe have gotten considerably tougher over the years generally speaking, it is probably safe to say that all in all, musicians are probably still treated better in Europe than in the States.

What touched (emotionally) you from the acoustic blues? What are the secrets of resophonic guitar?

I guess I've pretty much answered part of this question already in some of the answers to previous questions. But in just a few words, what touched me regarding the downhome Blues was/is the rawness, the honesty, the depth of emotion and intensity, the down to earth poetry of some of the words, the feeling, the spirit of spontaneity and the freedom of expression.

Regarding the secrets of resophonic guitar, I don't think there are really any secrets. It's all a matter of personal taste in sound. Sometimes I'm in the mood to use it and sometimes I'd rather play something else. Most people treat the resophonic as something you play bottleneck on in open tunings. They usually play instruments with wider necks and higher string action. But thats not it for me. Of course, I also play bottleneck in open tuning sometimes, but mostly I use it as a regular, all-around guitar tuned in standard tuning. I want to be able to play everything on my resophonic that I play on my regular acoustic or electric. I use the same gage of nickel strings, with an unwound G-string, that I also use on everything else. I have a magnetic pick up on it, which gives it a bit of an electric edge but still allows the resophonic sound to come through. I'm not a "purist" that way. I need to hear/feel that push, that drive. I do the same with a regular acoustic guitar. It needs to cut through and have that bite to it. So, for me it's not about dogma or pre-conceived notions about how an instrument needs to be played or treated. There is no fixed recipe that works for everybody. Do what works for you! So maybe thats the secret.

What is the impact of Blues and Roots music on the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?                                                       (Photo: Tom Shaka, 2011)

Wow thats a big question which I'm not sure I know how to answer. To be honest, I don't know what impact it's had. There are so many things going on today. So many political agendas, and so much divisiveness, fear, corruption and hypocrisy. It's the "divide and conquer" game, so that the power structure can maintain control over the masses. Having a humanity that is awake and united is dangerous to the power structure (the monopoly-men that run the system), so they need to have us all at each others throats. Creating distractions and chaos is part of their doctrine. I'd say that we're ALL on the plantation now. Or... we're ALL on the reservation now, as the great Indian activist Russel Means used to say. Notice I said "Indian" and not "native American." Russel himself even preferred the term "Indian." Anyway, music is something that can naturally uplift and bring people together. Trying to artificially force people together through mandate of law and by pushing manipulative methods such as political-correctness, is counterproductive. It only creates resentment. It is also totally dishonest, since the real goal of the power structure is to have us divided and dumbed-down, so that we can be enslaved. Through political correctness they are training (mind-controling) the masses into censoring themselves. This is, in reality, anti-freedom. Freedom of thought and of speech is natural and God-given, not government-given. To the contrary, governments are stripping us of freedom and dignity. Bit by bit they are overextending their reach and increasingly intruding into our private lives, telling us what we're allowed to say and even think. The surveillance state is an out of control Frankenstein monster. If you think it's purpose is to keep us safe, think again! This all transcends party politics. Party politics is just another divisive tactic. Just different heads of the same beast. This is all easily observable. An expansion of human consciousness is needed in order to change the course that humanity now finds itself on. Man should not rule over man!

Music can uplift and heal. What a breath of fresh air this grassroots music is, especially in today's modern, fast-paced, upside-down, plastic, digital world. But music (if we can even call it that) can also harm. The industrial star-making machine is not about art, talent, or upliftment. Hollywood, and the mainstream hit-making factory are part of the same system. In fact, they are joined at the hip, but it's really not very hip. I don't believe it's the Blues guys of old who sold their souls, I think it's the mainstream, corporate pop-star machine of the entertainment industry (music, film, sports, politics, ect.). That's why these people get pumped and pushed to stardom in the first place. Having been enticed and lured by the bait of fame and fortune, they must do what their masters demand of them. They basically made that famous deal (pact) with the devil. Who in their right mind would want that? There’s no freedom, dignity or integrity there. It's a blessing to remain true to yourself and to maintain (or reclaim) your integrity and freedom. That's one of the lessons I've learned over decades of working at the grassroots level, remaining down to earth, and playing the music I love. So, remain true to what you love and don't sell out for the illusion of tinsel town glamour and glitter. We can uplift ourselves, and in so doing, we can also help to uplift others. Anyway, thats my take on it.

"What do I miss nowadays regarding the Blues of the past? Well, time marches on and things change, and that's just the way it is. So, it's not about living in the past. Everyone can play what they like, the way they like."

(Tom Shaka, 2012 / Photo © by Aigars Lapsa)

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

Well, I wouldn't be interested in stepping into a time machine in the first place. We're all here on earth right now because this is where we're supposed to be at this point in time. Thats why we're here. It's a big school and we're all here on a spiritual journey, whether we know it or not...even the atheists. We're all here to learn and to grow. It's the school of life. So, I really wouldn't be interested in going off into another time, even if it were possible. But I guess that if we were able to go backwards in time, we'd discover that we've probably been lied to about pretty much everything. There has been massive disinformation and indoctrination. But besides that, I wouldn't trust the technology either. So, let's all make the best out of where we are right here and right now. As I sometimes say, the whole world has got the Blues and doesn't even know it. When we play Blues music with heart and soul, thats a natural medicine. As Mr. Hooker rightfully said, "Blues is a healer." 

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