Harris spent five years living in New Orleans and became a renowned local musician. He ate at Mona's, absorbed the city's history and culture and met musician friends such as Harry Dennis, with whom he still plays. "It's a fascinating place to me still," Harris says by phone from his home in Charlottesville, Va. "It continues to be a great place to come and play, see old friends and learn more about the history of southern Louisiana."
A self-described music anthropologist, Harris added the spice of Crescent City music to his other far-flung interests and became part of a young blues vanguard that included Keb' Mo' and Alvin Youngblood Hart. Now he's returning for an appearance at Jazz Fest, part of an ongoing tour in support of his latest album, Mississippi to Mali (Rounder Records).
The album's genesis stems from a starring role in Martin Scorsese's first episode of the PBS miniseries, The Blues: A Musical Journey. That episode, "Feel Like Going Home," follows Harris on a musical journey to Mali, in West Africa, where he collaborates with a range of native musicians and explores the obvious, and not-so-obvious, links between African music and African-American blues.
Inspired by the experience, Harris returned to Mali after shooting the Scorsese documentary. He collaborated with legends such as guitarist Ali Farka Toure in a series of field recordings. To strengthen the cultural link, Harris took a similar approach during sessions in Mississippi with a stellar cast of musicians. The Mississippi recordings feature harmonica ace Bobby Rush, drummer Sam Carr and the late Othar Turner's Rising Star and Fife Drum Band. The result: a wide-ranging album that features abundant guitar, unusual flourishes such as an ancient, one-string African fiddle known as a njarka, and soulful vocals that blend Delta blues with African spirituals. "I like the sound of this record," Harris says. "It sounds warm without being a low-quality sound. And I really like the people I did the record with. "The most important thing is that we use the music to educate our youth about their history and about all the great music that is out there," says the 35-year-old, who still keeps a sideline gig as a carpenter and stone mason when he's not touring. "Music is one of those things that always engages the mind and encourages activity. That's important."