Jimi Hendrix, Musical Esperanto


I’m not sure exactly when I first heard a musician from some far-flung spot on the globe described as the “Jimi Hendrix of [insert place name here].” Maybe it was the Malian “desert blues” guitarist Baba Salah, who Vanity Fair grandiloquently dubbed the “Jimi Hendrix of Africa.”

Whenever it was, it wasn’t long before I began to see the comparison cropping up everywhere, covering almost every conceivable sort of music. And once you notice this rhetorical tic, you can’t not notice it. The Jimi Hendrix of Japan. The Jimi Hendrix of South Africa. The Jimi Hendrix of the Sahara and, of course, the Jimi Hendrix of Turkey.

Needless to say, few of these performers actually sound anything like Jimi Hendrix. Certainly not the Jimi Hendrix of the sitar or the ukulele, the kora or the balalaika.

But the comparison makes sense to me. It’s only natural to reach for some sort of shorthand to translate the esoteric sounds of distant cultures into a language understandable to anyone with a passing knowledge of western culture. People might not know what a kamelengoni is (for the record, it’s a 12-stringed, harp-like instrument), but when you describe Vieux Kante as the Hendrix of the kamelengoni, everyone gets it: the guy’s a badass.

So: Jimi Hendrix, musical Esperanto.

I’ve committed this sin myself, in discussing Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Toure’s incendiary new live touring act. (Mali, a particularly guitar-happy country, probably has more Jimis per capita than any other nation on earth.) At Toure’s San Francisco show last summer, I tweeted, “He’s entered his Hendrix phase, with a power trio and everything.” And there was a resemblance to Band of Gypsys-era Hendrix, both in Toure’s playing, alternately liquid and feral, and in the swing of the rhythm section.

I’d guess that all of these collective invocations of Jimi say more about us than they do about him. He was dead before I was born, but I grew up with his music on the radio, at parties, pretty much anywhere anybody was playing music. There is a purity to his legacy that few performers from any era can match. He never had the chance to sell out or (even worse) run out of ideas. More than four decades later, his work remains without equal, from the effortless funk of “Crosstown Traffic” to the astral traveling of “Pali Gap.” Many of us are still looking for Jimi’s second coming, somewhere in the world.

Right after I got out of college, I went traveling for a half-year or so, a dirtbag backpacker following my own version of the hippie trail. By chance, I ended up in Essaouria, Morocco, where Hendrix himself had spent some time in the late 1960s. Local legend has it that he was so inspired by the ruins of an old fort on the beach that he wrote the song “Castles Made of Sand” — or, depending on the source, “Spanish Castle Magic.”

The songwriting claims aren’t true but, judging by all the drug dealers clogging the narrow streets, at least Jimi didn’t lack for hash. I spent a few days chasing his ghost, from restaurants where he ate to places where he stayed and musicians he supposedly played with. Everybody in Essaouria, from street hustlers to café owners, knew the stories.

I never found a trace of the guy, of course. Little did I know, he was only an Internet search away. Voila: the Jimi Hendrix of Morocco.

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image – Stuart Hampton