Musician talks about blues

Joe Carlson

To musician and novelist Arthur Flowers, the blues are about discovering one’s true inner-self through an acceptance of the challenges that God puts in front of everyone.
“Down in the Delta, we look at the blues as a way of life. The blues are about living life, and accepting adversity and changing it into strength,” Flowers said.
Flowers performed with percussionist and flutist Kpe Abioto Friday night in the St. Paul Student Center’s Northstar Ballroom. The show was a stew of blues and storytelling, followed by a dialogue in which audience members asked questions about the dreadlocks, the blues and hoodoo.
“They’ve been good friends for about 10 years now and they haven’t seen each other for about two years,” said University student Amy Amundson in an introduction. “They met in Memphis and this is the first time they’ve played outside of Memphis together.”
Abioto studied at the Shelby State College in Memphis, while Flowers has received no formal training in music. “Kpe and I are from Memphis and we came out of that blues thing,” Flowers said.
Flowers, who first started playing blues in New York, said his early performances were so well-received that many people believed he was a grizzled blues performer.
“As far as New York was concerned, anyone who could blow a blues harp was a blues man,” Flowers said.
He described one early show, where his friend had asked him to play harmonica a few days prior: “I got up there and blew a little mouth harp, and the next day I read in the paper ‘Memphis blues man played last night,’ and I said, ‘Blues man? I was there and I didn’t see him!'” But he accepted the title for a short time until he traveled back south to play a show.
“I forgot myself and went back down to Memphis with my little blues harp, being a blues man, and they said, ‘Hey man, take that back to New York.'”
But years of experience have transformed and refined his early talent, as demonstrated in the show Friday night. And though the show was not totally blues, many of the messages he tried to convey held a distinctly blues flavor.
“Everybody knows trouble. We all have trials and tribulations in our lives, we all have burdens in our lives,” Flowers said in the performance, “and you know God don’t give you no burden you can’t carry.”
But Flowers said that God is one of the often misunderstood aspects of his system of beliefs, called hoodoo. One of his goals as a novelist and musician is to dispel the ignorance surrounding the traditional African-American religion.
“Usually when folks hear the word hoodoo, they think about slavery-time hoodoo. They think spells and black-cat bones. I would no sooner boil a black cat than … you know,” said Flowers, trailing off.
“Comparing me to a slavery-time hoodoo is like comparing the space shuttle to a flying carpet,” Flowers said.
“Basically, we are trying to put God back into hoodoo,” Flowers said. Hoodoo arose when European colonists brought African slaves to America and forbade them to practice their religions.
“The God part left, and just the rituals and magic remained,” Flowers said. “Hoodoo has evolved beyond the strictly magic.”
But believing in the magic was, for Flowers, the first step to truly understanding and accepting hoodoo. He explained that although he has always thought of himself as a mystic, he discovered the more academic side of hoodoo first.
“I had always been a student of comparative traditions (such as hoodoo), rather than a practitioner,” he said.
Flowers said that the more he studied the transcribed oral histories of African-American mystics, the more he began to recall hoodoo stories that his mother had told him as a child.
“There was just a resonance with hoodoo for me,” he said.
But even though he understood hoodoo on a cultural and academic level, he still did not fully grasp it until a certain event.
“Something happened that made me think magic was possible,” he said, “Something that made me think that the power of the mind was limitless.” Though he wouldn’t say specifically what that event was, it did trigger a change in how he had perceived hoodoo.
“I was studying but I didn’t really believe,” he said. “I had to go through a thing of convincing myself in my soul that I was as truthful as I aspired to be. And eventually I was.”