In another life I wrote an unpublished comic crime novella that referenced an imagined book called Skinny White Guys: The Unlikely Triumph of British Blues, the title of which kept coming to mind as I was interviewing Phnom Penh’s harmonica-for-hire Colin Grafton, a long-expatriated Englander with a great love and deep knowledge of blues and jazz. He’s the special guest this week for the latest in the Jazz and the City series with singer Intan Andriana and pianist Metta Legitta at Green Pepper, Swingin’ the Blues.
So how did an English boy come to experience this music? “Blues and jazz came together really,” explains Colin. “Via King Oliver – the slowest thing that he ever recorded, a tune called Krooked Blues. My mother thought I was mad, but for me it was a revelation. Somewhere in this crackle I could really hear the blues. And then I heard Robert Johnson’s recordings, when they finally came out on LP, as did most of the early rockers, especially in Britain. Then Lonnie Johnson, who is more important than Robert Johnson to the blues because he was one of Robert Johnson’s main influences. I actually saw Lonnie in London in 1963 when he came over with the American Folk Blues Festival.
“1963 was a golden year for me. I was working at a travel agency in London, and so I was in London in the evenings, and I had some money from a steady job. American Folk Blues Festival, Thelonious Monk, Cannonball Adderley, and a lot of others. And then I moved out of London, I went to Folkestone, because I thought it would be nice to see snow on the beach in the winter, that was my excuse.”
What got you to the harmonica specifically? “Partly having no money: I was mainly broke at the time I started playing. Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee – I didn’t see them until 1979 in Tokyo, but I heard them of course pretty early on in the sixties, and I paid much more attention to Sonny Terry than to the Chicago electric blues of say Little Walter. The acoustic thing, what you could do with your hands – I never used an amp until I got to Japan I think. It was just something I stuck in my top pocket and carried around, and jammed with guitarists acoustically.”
The journey to Asia also came through musical connections. “I got into Indian music – Ravi Shankar appeared, thanks to George, and I got hold to the UNESCO Anthology of Indian Classical Music, a prized possession. Very good romantic background music, I discovered. And then I got interested in China, Japan. I didn’t know much about South East Asia at that time at all, never thought I’d end up here.”
The initial Asian destination was Hong Kong. “I knew somebody from college whose dad was the chief of the fire service in Hong Kong. The plan was maybe a year in Hong Kong and then go back to Britain. Actually Hong Kong was hell, and I never want to see it again. And it was an escape from Hong Kong eventually, back to Bangkok. And after that I stayed in the area – went up to Laos, stayed there, came to Cambodia, decided to stay here, until just before the Khmer Rouge arrived.
“During that time I wasn’t doing anything musically except jamming with a few blokes with guitars who drifted in and out. During the five years I was in South East Asia in the early seventies we didn’t get much exposure to music. We didn’t know what was happening in the outside world. Dark side of the Moon arrived – a few things came in from Bangkok. We didn’t know what was happening. Despite the fact that apparently the Cambodia Rocks thing was happening under our noses – we never heard it. It was in another world. We never found out about these secret Cambodian music enclaves – we thought everything was closed.” You can investigate Colin’s time in early seventies Cambodia via his photography here.
Japan was the place that brought the music to the forefront. “It was only in Japan that I really started getting back into buying a lot of music and going to a lot of concerts, and then starting to play, mainly with jazz musicians. And it was small groups, quartets, trios, usually with a piano involved and a guitar. In Tokyo we had the Blues Heartbreakers, a great band of musicians, and Pink Elephant, which was the jazz side. In the last six years, every time I’ve gone back to Japan we’ve fixed up a gig with a Malian kora player, Mamadou. And a few of the things that I did with him I’ve done with Pavel in Blues Routes, a few that fit.”
And what, pray tell, is a kora? “It’s a harp lute, a huge gourd covered with goat skin, with a neck and you pluck the strings from the front. It’s got 21 strings, and it sounds like two instruments being played at the same time, but in fact they only use four fingers. The first time we did a collaboration, I did some stuff with him on the kora, I knew some of the Malian tunes. And on the guitar I said can we try some blues stuff? He wasn’t enthusiastic about it at all. He didn’t say anything, but I could tell he wasn’t happy. I was playing him various things. And finally he said: I don’t count, and I don’t play chords. So I thought: John Lee Hooker! And I played him some and he smiled: yes, something like that sounds okay.
Colin has a very wide musical palate, from world music before it was world music, and through the history of both jazz and blues. He talks enthusiastically about gems by obscure players such as Rhythm Willie Hood. “Not many people have heard of him, unless they’re harmonica players and are into the history of it. Rhythm Willie actually cut four sides with his own band in the early 40s, and subsequently he was discovered playing as a sideman with Peetie Wheatstraw and a few other long lost forgotten blues singers, and on a few other later recordings with big bands. His stuff is amazing. He sticks up in the high end, almost like a whistle or a flute or something. He’s overblowing beautifully, he gets the blue notes. Very distinctive. You’d know immediately it’s him, no one else played like him.”
For the future, Colin is keen to expand his range. “I’d like to be doing some more ambitious jazz stuff. Some of Thelonious Monk’s stuff I can play, not all of it. Charlie Parker is a bit difficult on the diatonic, too fast. Now is the Time, that’s okay. It’s easy except you get out of breath. And Miles Davis, All Blues, that’s easy. And Moanin’, that’s another jazz standard, Art Blakey, Bobby Timmons. Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, Charles Mingus.”
And what sort of songs should we expect on Friday night with Intan and Metta? “Autumn leaves. Mamie’s Blues by Jelly Roll Morton. I put a few Mose Allison songs in. Bye Bye Blackbird. Songs like Bye Bye Blackbird and Fly me to the Moon – these are songs I can do a lot with on the harmonica, they lend themselves very easily to improvisation on the diatonic. If I’m invited to sit in it they’ll always give me a blues. But Bye Bye Blackbird, no one would ever think of asking me to play on that. I get stuck in a certain rut, a certain stereotype – harmonica plays blues and that’s that.”
Colin joins Intan and Metta at Green Pepper Italian restaurant for Jazz and the City #5 – bookings essential. He can also be seen around town with Pavel Ramirez in Blues Routes, and is a frequent jammer at open mics. Easy on the blues tunes though.