I won’t do this too often, I promise, but I’d like to use the beginning of this review as an opportunity to climb up on my ethnomusicological soapbox and do some good ol’ fashioned preaching. I’ve had this idea for a couple years now that YouTube is the next evolution of musical transmission, in so much as it’s become a virtual substitute for the proverbial front porch banjo lesson. But, instead of sitting cross-legged on the wooden floor while your used-to-be-a-coal-miner-until-he-got-the-ol’-black-lung-don’t-ya-know Grandpa walks you through the rudiments of how to play “Darling Cora,” you get to sit in your boxers, eating Chinese leftovers, and work your way note by note through “StillJreming”‘s rendition of “Trouble in Mind.” You savvy readers already know this, but the internet has really done much more for music than merely piss off Lars Ulrich and encourage 1TB hard drive sales; it’s completely changed how music is passed down through generations. Teenage kids have just as much access to traditional blues and gospel tunes as they have to punk and rock, and this incredible confluence of influences is already leading to some wonderful things. How else could an organic chemist in Indiana come to have 30,000 views on his YouTube video of “Hard Time Killing Floor,” and inspire a listener comment like “There’s so much soul leaking from the guitar that you could harvest it, put it in mason jars then sell it for wholesale purchase with great bargains.” The great unveiling: StillJReming is Jean-Rene Ella, and though I’ve never met the man, he taught me how to play guitar.
Jean-Rene Ella is a citizen of the world in the truest sense. He grew up in Cameroon, Central Africa of a French-born mother and a father deeply moved by American blues and gospel. This alone is a recipe for musical success: African polyrhythm combined with the structure of traditional French folk tunes and the harmonic sense of the blues. Both parents were musical, and Ella began lessons on flute at the age of 4, moving first to piano and then finally guitar. For many years, his primary musical outlet was a small church gospel band, during which time he refined his musical sensibilities on the guitar, delving deeply into the tradition of the negro spiritual. In 1995 he moved to France and took up the role of singer and guitarist for a blues band called The Walkin’ Chairs, who can be heard on Side A of this 7-inch. The group toured the North East of France until Ella left to pursue a PhD in chemistry in the United States. This marked the end of his ensemble career, and Ella’s musical ventures have since been solo acts. For years he held a gig at a New Orleans establishment called “The Neutral Ground Coffee House,” but despite his musical inclinations, his scientific mind drew him into academia. By happenstance, during a vacation in France in 2007 a friend introduced Ella to YouTube and joked, “Hey, you can play that song so much better and share it online like that.” They laughed, his friend flipped on a video camera, and Ella did exactly that. Two years later, more people have heard Ella play his guitar and sing than can fit in Giants Stadium.
When I contacted Jean-Rene Ella about doing an Ampeater 7-inch, I wasn’t too sure how he’d react. Was he a reclusive YouTube star like the renowned Fretkillr, or would he be gracious enough to lend his talents to our modest little website? Well, Ella turns out to be as magnanimous a human being as he is a musician, and here we are with two studio recordings from a true master of his craft. Side A features Ella’s group The Walkin’ Chairs playing an original composition called “Human River,” and Side B is an Ella solo performance of the traditional spiritual “Wade in the Water.” “Human River” is a slow build with a deep groove. It’s easy to talk about this tune like it’s a blues spiritual for a new era, but it’s not quite that. The Walkin’ Chairs aren’t mimicking or paying homage to a traditional genre. Instead, they’re actually part of it, they’re the real thing. There’s pain in this music, there’s introspection, and it belongs not to a single soul but to all of humanity. A solo guitar introduction gives way to a full band arrangement replete with string bass, drums, and one truly frenetic horn break. This tune might not grab some listeners–there’s no “hook.” The primary contrast is in Ella’s voice, constantly changing in dynamic and timbre, reaching clear highs and deep growls. I love it, but if you’re looking for something with a bit more apparent structure, then Side B is your thing.
You’ve probably heard this one before, performed by anyone from Marlena Shaw to Bob Dylan. Jean-Rene Ella gives us his own fingerpicked rendition of this classic. He serves up both lead and harmony vocals, creating an effect akin to call and response that gives the tune a brilliant fullness. I was once told that there isn’t 1, nor 2, nor 3, but 5 separate Michael Jackson vocal personas in “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough.” This might have had more to do with Quincy Jones’s enthusiastic production than with any sort of philosophical decision, but the idea is that each additional voice responds to the principle voice as a participant in the ongoing conversation of the song. “Wade in the Water” begins solo; a second voice enters in harmony on the refrain “God’s gonna trouble the water”; that same voice then departs and reacts to the chorus with subtle “ohoh”s. For the rest of the song it darts in and out, switching between harmony and counterpoint, leaving room for both Ellas to swim through the tune together, reacting and responding. Yeah, I know this is a little bit “out there” for a music review, but when I listen to Ella’s music, I sense something truly profound, something that asks me to listen just a bit more carefully than I otherwise might. There’s no dissonance here, no odd effects, no incredible production, nothing to really set your ears aflame with curiosity, but maybe the plain facade and candid disposition of traditional music frees us to listen a bit deeper into what we’re actually hearing and to grapple with it on a more fundamental level.
With that in mind, I leave you with some words from Ella himself: “I think that the original sound of work songs, negro spirituals and blues stayed with me because it felt so real. I’m not trying to sound cheesy or anything, but I could really feel the faith, or the pain or the joy in these songs, in that acoustic sound…something raw, unbiased, so I basically felt I had no choice. My heart and my mind wouldn’t let me play the Blues or the Gospel any other way.”