(From left) Walter "Wolfman" Washington, Coco Montoya, Layla Zoe and John Mayall. Pics/Ashish Raje
We arrive at the sun-kissed rooftop foyer of a BKC five-star to meet the four international artistes playing at the Mahindra Blues Festival this year. Coco Montoya, Layla Zoe, John Mayall and Walter "Wolfman" Washington are seated in one line at four different tables, interacting with the media ahead of their weekend performances. Zoe aside, the other three grew up in an analog era that is as far removed from today's generation as a dusty vinyl is from digitally downloaded music. Montoya, at 66, is the youngest of the lot. Wolfman is 74 years old, and Mayall is an entire decade older than him.
So, when our turn comes to interact individually with these truly old-school blues singers and guitarists — each a legend in his own right — we pose a common question to them. What do they make of how music has evolved over the years, and how have they taken to advances in technology? A lot of blues music, to make it clear, seems thoroughly incongruous to the electronic beats and scratchy loops floating about in the 21st century. So, we ask these veterans how they have adapted to the changes in production and consumption patterns, without bending the musically ethical backbone of their blues upbringing. And here is what each of them feels.
Well, you know, I have always played what I want to play, and have expressed myself through my music. And it's no different today than what it was 50 years ago. But music evolves over the years, and I don't live in the past. So, yes, a lot has changed, especially when it comes to making records. The technological aspects of it are different today. You can make multi-track albums with all sorts of sounds. But when I was first making records with Eric Clapton and The Bluesbreakers; those had just four tracks, you know. Now, you can do just about anything. But, I still play just the way I used to.
Walter "Wolfman" Washington
Back when I started, we didn't have the kind of instruments that they have these days. They didn't have all these axes and stuff that make the guitar have different styles. But I'm so used to just natural playing, man. I did start listening to how music is changing, and I tried to change with it. But it just didn't work with me. You know, they have all these new sounds with all these boards [draws out a DJ controller with his hands] — you don't need all that to make music. It's not necessary. The only thing I do different is a wa-wa pedal. That's it. I don't have anything else.
I remember a situation with my father a long time ago. I was a young man with long hair, and I was sitting in my bedroom listening to Cream. And the song that Jack Bruce was singing was I'm So Glad, an old blues tune. And basically, the whole lyrics is, "I'm so glad, I'm glad, I'm glad, I'm glad." In the middle of this, while I'm playing it really loud, my father bursts into the room and he says, "Glad, glad, glad! What the hell is he so damn glad about? You're crazy. What are you listening to? Who cares whether he is glad or not?" And he had me laughing so hard that I had tears in my eyes. He just didn't get it. And I guess it's wonderful that I am now in a place where he was, where my daughter will play something and it will bounce off my head, because I have no idea what they are singing about. But does that mean it's bad music? No, it doesn't. Thank God for Bruno Mars, that's all. Soul is back. I love this kid and there are a couple of others who are really pushing the envelope, which is exciting. It leads me to have hope that true, old R&B is being discovered by young people. And I think the rediscovery of blues is coming for younger people, because it's emotion that they are looking for. It's imperative to learn how to not be afraid to hurt and feel while listening to songs. I think that's the problem. The songs these days are about being social, about being accepted by your peers, and being beautiful and sexy, and that's all there is. Eventually, as a human being, you discover what it's like to be loved, to be cared about, to miss somebody, to mourn somebody's death. These are emotional things. And music like blues and old soul is all about feeling these things, but emotionally, not cerebrally. That's what's important in any genre of music. If you can feel it in your heart, it's real. And that's what we are learning how to do again. I think young people are learning how to feel.