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Otha Turner and the Afrossippi Allstars



When I lived in Memphis in 1999, a group of friends and I headed down to Oxford, Mississippi one Saturday afternoon for a music festival. It was cold and gray but we braved the weather to see a living legend: Othar Turner. I was a bit skeptical at first because I had heard that Turner played "drum and fife" music, which didn't sound like it could possibly hold my interest. "But you just gotta see him," people said. And so there I was, standing in front of a temporary stage on a blustery afternoon, waiting and waiting and waiting. It began to rain. I had to pee. But still I waited. Finally, Turner appeared, wearing overalls and a baseball cap and holding a small wooden fife. He did not look at the audience. He did not smile. From the ground below the stage, he looked about five feet tall. But then, the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band (with Turner's daughter and grandson on snare drums and his cousin on bass drum) began to play, and Turner closed his eyes and blew that fife.

I wish that I could give you a song-by-song rundown of his entire set that day, but I can't. The next hour was a mesmerizing blur of slide blues guitar, fife wailing, dancing, and rain. I do remember that everybody in the crowd was dancing and smiling, and by the time it was over we were all soaked through to the skin, but nobody seemed to mind. When he finished playing, Turner turned to the crowd, raised his fife, smiled, and left the stage. My friends and I slogged to the nearest cafe to warm up and dry off, speechless.

What we had just experienced was a taste of drum and fife's enduring, primal power. As a musical style, drum and fife has existed for well over four hundred years -- American drum and fife music traces its influences most directly to both the drum corps of the Revolutionary War and traditional African music brought to America by slaves. Today, there are very few living masters of the fife; Turner is one of them, and he leads the last remaining drum and fife band in Mississippi (which once had over a dozen bands). Realizing that he is one of the last experts in a dying art form, Turner has begin teaching fife to his family and friends.

Though Turner hosts annual picnics on his goat farm in Mississippi (nestled in the hill country between Como and Senatobia), few people outside of the area had heard his music before a young musician named Luther Dickinson began playing music with him and decided to record his band. Dickinson -- son of famed Memphis musician/producer Jim Dickinson and member of Gutbucket and the North Mississippi All-Stars -- befriended Turner and made field recordings of his music. The result, the Othar Turner and His Rising Star Fife & Drum Band Field Recordings from Gravel Springs, Mississippi seven-inch EP on Sugar Ditch/Shangri-La Records, rose to the top ten of Rolling Stone magazine's alternative charts. Dickinson also produced the CD Everybody Hollerin' Goat on Birdman Records, a collection of field recordings collected over a five-year period. That record also earned great praise: Rolling Stone listed it as one of the top ten blues releases of 1997.

In 1999, Birdman flew percussionists from a drum troupe in Senegal, Africa to Senatobia, Mississippi to join Turner and his band. The result is Otha Turner and the Afrossippi Allstars: From Senegal to Senatobia, eight entrancing pieces that combine Turner's masterful fife playing with the varied polyrhythms of traditional African music. Both "Station Blues" and "Senegal to Senatobia" come from that album. Listen, close your eyes, and imagine dancing in the rain.

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