In doing so he invites his fellow performers to share their gifts with us, creating a musical banquet for the famished soul. Bibb’s extended creative family are all in, from Harrison Kennedy and Habib Koite to Staffan Astner and Michael Jerome Browne. The cast of characters also includes his longtime producer Glen Scott and Bibb’s wife, Ulrika. And while this is definitely an Eric Bibb record, it is also a product of the community Bibb has created for himself, and us.
Global Griot is a double disc release, twenty-four tracks that celebrate a diversity of sounds all in the service of a singular vision. Bibb masterfully touches on all his concerns, political, social, racial, and spiritual. It is a record that aptly translates the broader goals of the civil rights movement and of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Even when Bibb shows us our failings he lifts us up so we can dream and work for a better life. This is perhaps his most underrated gift. Bibb has the ability to look at the worst examples of human behavior and remain resolute in his belief that we can still create a new world. It takes a certain courage to look the devil in the eye and hold on to the idea that we shall overcome. It is from this perspective that the record begins, and, as often is the case with Bibb, track sequencing is part of the genius of Global Griot.
As defined in the liner notes, a griot is a caste member who bears the responsibility to maintain the oral history and traditions of his people. Bibb himself is a griot, carrying the mantle of the history and values of the civil rights movement. And it is that history he seeks to preserve as a launching pad to continue working for justice and equality.
By combining his efforts with the talents of his cohorts Bibb emphasizes that this really is a universal work that extends well beyond the borders of America, thus the global tag in Global Griot. Bibb wisely begins this musical journey where all who seek peace must start, with a call for forgiveness and mercy.
From the outset, the opening track “Gathering of the Tribes” signals we are in for something special. The tender ballad is embellished by the ecstatic kora playing and singing of Solo Cissokho. Set against a choir consisting of Paris Renita, Andre de Lang, and Bibb’s wife Ulrika, the song calls the listener in to a fellowship where, through forgiveness, true reconciliation can occur.
Cissokho, from Senegal, is a marvel. His kora playing is fervent and joyful and his vocal is rapturous. Singing in his native tongue, the listener doesn’t need translation, as the joy in his performance transcends language. Cissokho manages to glide over the strings deftly inserting each note with such precision that he leaves the listener absolutely giddy.
Next up Bibb takes us down the Damascus road, shining the convicting light upon greed. “Whereza Money At” takes on despots who embezzle their nation’s wealth for personal gain. Over a jazzy mix of guitars and horns Bibb seeks to hold these leaders accountable. Accountability is the theme of “Human River” as Bibb sings of change coming. According to Bibb a mighty human river of love will overtake injustice. On this track Bibb makes a clear jibe at the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. He takes it further on the subsequent track, “What’s He Gonna Say Today,” a plucky banjo track underscored by a quirky bass line. The song expresses dismay at the level to which political discourse has sunk in the soundbite twitter feed world we live in, and the lack of decorum shown by the President himself.
As if to remind us that he is still a scholar of pre-war blues Bibb’s next track is “Brazos River Blues,” a song co-written with Harrison Kennedy and Michael Jerome Browne. A dirge, the song is essentially a moan lamenting the fate of fieldworkers who dropped dead in the sugar cane fields of Texas. Bibb and Kennedy share vocal credits in a ghostly, haunting performance that disturbs the listener and offers no comfort.
Habib Koite returns as co-writer and performer with Bibb on “We Don’t Care,” a song that condemns the immorality of rampant consumerism. Bibb asks us to consider the ramifications of our addiction to self-gratification and the blatant acquisition of things. Are we willing to accept modern day slavery if it feeds our appetite for all things new and shiny? How would we react if each new pair of shoes came with a video detailing the working conditions that produced our purchase? Bibb asks hard questions of us as the wealth gap continues to widen and more and more people slip into the ranks of the working poor.
Per Lindvall provides drums to the trio of Bibb, Browne and Kennedy on the Big Bill Broonzy number “Black Brown & White.” After schooling us a while Bibb then turns to the cure for our ills. Starting with “Listen for the Spirit” and “Hoist up the Banner” Bibb begins to lay out his hope for us to heal.
This reaches its peak on the mashup of an African popular song with a well-known Bibb instrumental. One of Bibb’s most ebullient songs is “Sebastian’s Tune.” It is an acoustic epiphany of melody and bliss and when it is wedded to the joy of “Mami Wata,” the result is sheer jubilation. The final three tracks of disc one offer spiritual and familial comfort and refuge. The healing has begun.
Disc two kicks off with “Race and Equality.” Bibb sings about teaching his youth how best to respond to bigotry:
Humanity might seem divided
By skin color an’ religion
I believe the truth is we’re united
In God’s eyes there’s no division
“Grateful” is a tender love song to his wife Ulrika. “All Because” lauds the friendship that formed the foundation for his marital bliss. The two songs work as a basis for real, enduring love in a world fixated on what’s hot and impermanent.
Throughout disc two Bibb leans on his faith to imagine a new way for us to live. “Let God” is a blueprint for letting go of those things we can’t do in our own strength and trusting in the higher power. For “Spirit Day” Bibb sticks to guitar, leaving the vocals to Solo Cissokho and Harrison Kennedy. Here Cissokho’s kora shines once again, at times pensive, brooding and measured, and at other times evocative, moody and unpredictable. In fact, Cissokho works his magic on several tracks on disc two. On the instrumental “Picture a New World” his kora occupies a space nestled between Bibb’s acoustic guitar and Olli Haavisto’s gorgeous pedal steel. It is two and a half minutes of pure tranquility, the musical equivalent of a healing balm. Apply liberally, repeat.
“New Friends” is a duet between co-writers Bibb and Linda Tillery. It is a prayer for unity amongst leaders and returns the listener to the sacred ground of forgiveness. The performance is heart-felt and honest to a fault.
Bibb brings this glorious collection to its culmination with two well-known and beloved traditional songs. “Michael Row da Boat Ashore,” a folk staple for decades, is given new life here. To get this far and choose this song is to risk slipping into nostalgia and treacly sentiment, or worse, irrelevance. Bibb raises this song from the dustbin by respecting the material and investing himself heart and soul. For me this song was reborn and stirred deeper pools of experience and memory. Like the manifest of a cargo ship this performance reminded me of my port of origin and my ultimate destination. Hallelujah indeed, brother Bibb.
The last and greatest gift is one Bibb keeps giving. Someone somewhere knows how many times he has recorded “Needed Time.” I don’t, and I don’t care. He can record this until the end of the age and I will sing along. And speaking of singing along, it is a special moment indeed when you hear him perform this live. He does it, as Guy Davis would say, “Seeger style.” That is, Bibb engages his audience to join in singing, creating a moment of community in real time. It is impossible to sing it in an auditorium with several hundred ticket holders and not be touched as a room full of strangers become members of an extended human family, each one testifying they wouldn’t take nothing for their journey. The blood and tears, the miles of hard road, the pain and grief all washed away in the hope of a new day, and better life, a promised land that isn’t just a promise but a real and living sacred land we can attain. A land of peace and brotherhood.
This recorded version is uniquely anointed, drawing as it does from Bibb’s own history. Whenever he performs this song Bibb expresses gratitude to Taj Mahal for teaching him this number. Here, on Global Griot, Bibb keeps it simple, his guitar, Frans Krook’s sturdy bass line, and Solo Cissokho’s transcendent kora playing. As Mr. & Mrs. Bibb lift their voices in supplication, Cissokho’s kora carries us up Jacob’s ladder, to return with the blessing divine.
To review Global Griot as a blues or folk album is to miss the point completely. This is not a record release. It is an event. A landmark. A lighthouse on our journey through the deep. Bibb takes all he has built through the years and delivers it in the service of a dream bigger than his career, larger than music itself. To say it is the culmination of his life’s work is only partly true, because Bibb isn’t done yet. Bibb isn’t offering us processed sugar, ear candy for the masses. This is real food for the soul.
Perhaps, like the prophets of old, he is out of step with fashion, tapping into older, slower rhythms and more permanent roots that pulse with the life we truly need, not the one spoon fed to us by the masters of greed and war. Perhaps we need this record more than a hundred hip, trendy moments of diversion. Perhaps, like his mentor King, he sees the mountain top, and wants to bring us there.