For the past five years, there hasn’t been an event in the New England area quite like the University of Rhode Island Guitar Festival. Founded and curated by classical guitarist Adam Levin, who also teaches at the university, the festival showcases all facets of the six-stringed instrument through live performances, masterclasses, lectures and workshops. The lineup of performers also has a wide range of styles, ranging from classical to blues to folk and numerous others. Because of COVID-19, this year’s edition of the festival will be taking place in virtual fashion from Sept. 25 to 27 via their website at uriguitarfestival.org. Denver reggae and blues musician Corey Harris will be performing on the first day of the festival at 7:30 p.m. with Irish classical guitarist Redmond O’Toole.
Harris and I had a talk ahead of this weekend’s event about living in Africa and its effect on his music, being part of a special collaboration at the turn of this past century, thoughts on virtual events and working on a new album.
Rob Duguay: You got to study language in Cameroon during your early twenties. How much of an impact did that experience have on your life?
Corey Harris: I got to know the culture of the people and how they make music. The experience has had a big influence on my songwriting.
RD: What’s the main artistic symmetry that you find between American blues music and West African music? Which similarities do they have with each other?
CH: They’re both music of the African world. African music represents the root and the blues are the branches. There are so many similarities, ranging from singing to rhythms and other characteristics because of the history both styles share.
RD: You got to be involved in the albums Mermaid Avenue and Mermaid Avenue Vol. II during the late ‘90s and early 2000s with English folk musician Billy Bragg and the Chicago alternative rock act Wilco. What was the experience like for you being involved in those projects and putting music to Woody Guthrie’s lyrics?
CH: It was a good experience making those albums with Billy, Jeff Tweedy and the band. The best part was getting to know Nora Guthrie and hearing her recollections of her father. That was very special.
RD: It must have been. Woody Guthrie has had such a huge impact on American music and society as a whole. With the upcoming URI Guitar Festival being a virtual one this year because of COVID-19, what are your thoughts on these types of events? Do you think it can be sustainable in a post-pandemic future?
CH: I think events like this are absolutely sustainable. This is really what the future will look like with musicians doing livestreaming and virtual festivals like these.
RD: You’ve had a prolific career with 19 albums in your discography. Do you have any plans for your 20th release? If so, when can we expect it to come out?
CH: I have an album that I’ve been working on with my band that will be out next year. We’re looking forward to releasing it and having people listen to what we have to offer.