The roots of blues music start deep in the fertile soil around New Orleans, Louisiana, where the muddy Mississippi River pours into the Gulf of Mexico. From there they follow the river north to Natchez, along the back roads into Clarksdale, and then across the Mississippi state line into Memphis, Tennessee.
By most accounts, the blues evolved from work songs and field “hollers” sung by rural black labourers in the early 20th century. Singing helped alleviate the anguish of being poor and oppressed.
Few of those early crooners would have ever imagined that some 50 years later, the music of downtrodden African-Americans would turn into something of a global sensation, reaching not just beyond the Mississippi River basin, but across the oceans to Europe, Australia and beyond.
Misery, it turns out, likes to ride shotgun.
“Blues has always been a passion for me,” says Jonas “Little Duke” Hasting, a slide guitarist from Sweden who formed his first blues band in 1976 at the age of 13.
Called the Blues Benders, the group covered Willie Dixon and Elmore James numbers. Jonas played bass. In high school, the budding Stockholm guitarist happened across a Texas bluesman nicknamed “Master of the Telecaster,” and the electrified sounds from his Fender guitar changed Jonas forever.
“When I was 15 I heard Albert Collins play his guitar, and I realised that the bass was not for me,” he recalls. “I swapped it for a second-hand Levin hollow body guitar and never looked back.”
From Collins’ early influence, Jonas immersed himself in the stylings of American blues. Three decades later, he is the namesake and lead guitarist for Little Duke and The Mekong Blues Messengers, who play The FCC Phnom Penh on September 10.
“We have a quite wide repertoire, with the classic amplified Chicago blues style as the base,” he says of the Messengers, rattling off a who’s who of influences from the Chicago scene: Hubert Sumlin, Jimmy Rogers, Buddy Guy, Elmore James, McKinley Morganfield, Robert Lockwood, Little Walter.
Yet just as quickly Jonas returns to his Lone Star beginnings — Albert Collins and T-Bone Walker, he continues, and let’s not forget “some younger white Texas musicians: Stevie Ray Vaughan , Johnny Winter and Kim Wilson.”
Kristen Rasmussen, from the US, sings lead vocals for The Messengers. Australian Ken White plays harmonica. Americans Chris Hilleary and Steve Miller round out the line-up on bass and drums.
Kristen, a classically trained vocalist, first took the stage at the age of 10, when she performed “Tomorrow” from the musical Annie on Singaporean television.
“As a girl I was fixated on show tunes,” she says, “and I dreamed of being on Broadway.”
As Kristen got older, her musical tastes evolved.
“When I started studying classical voice, I learned how to sing differently, but I was never moved by classical music the way that I have been moved by blues, soul and jazz,” she says. “I like the raw sound of blues — it’s just more soulful and real to me.”
Ken offers a more lyrical perspective.
“The sweet melodies and irresistible harmonic chord progressions of the dusty roads less travelled is a great attraction to blues,” he says. “The fact that it speaks of, and reminds us all of, the hardships once endured by travelling musicians of the southern U.S., and the soul, passion and truthfulness that pervades blues and endures the generations of our time is unmistakable.”
Little Duke and the Mekong Blues messengers play The FCC Phnom Penh on Saturday Sept 10.