Born in 1948 in Chicago, Otis Taylor is an unconventional American blues musician — unusual because of the variety of musical texture he brings to the regular blues structure. His sound is both rudimentary and modern at the same time, a rare combination.
Belonging to a multiracial ethnicity, Taylor started playing the banjo at a time when it was considered a white southern American instrument. However, when he learnt that it was originally African and had been used as a mock-stereotype for the African- American community in white minstrel shows, he abandoned it, going for the guitar and harmonica instead. Taylor played in bands till 1976, when he got into the antiques trade.
The musician in him lay dormant yet restless for 20 years. In 1996, he returned to the music scene with a refreshingly original and smashing first album by the name of Blue-eyed Monster. His next two albums — When Negroes Walked the Earth, 1997 and White African, 2001 — were unabashedly political. Perhaps it is because of the ‘depoliticising’ nature of mainstream music in the US today that Taylor is not your popular chartbusting artiste. Instead, he is a celebrated performer in blues and folk festivals taking place across the globe, particularly in Europe.
Taylor’s political project through music is spontaneous, arising more from the sub-conscious, as he himself admits. In any case, it is quite relevant in the times. His music blends a forgotten, sidelined part of history with the contemporary. For instance, his 2008 album Recapturing the Banjo produces a dynamic, modern sound rather than recreating purist nostalgia. “I just wanted to show that black people don’t play the banjo like white people. We really have a distinct style,” said Taylor in an interview.
Music lovers should tune in to Taylor if interested in blues, indie music, music history or just history in general. He is an incredibly novel artiste in the current global blues music scene.
Albums to check out: Blue-Eyed Monster, 1996; Recapturing the Banjo, 2008; Pentatonic Wars & Love Songs, 2009.