How blues singer Martha Redbone uses her music to teach fans about African and Native American history

The American singer performs on February 3 as part of Abu Dhabi's Barzakh Festival

US artist Martha Redbone sings the music of her ancestors. Craig Bailey
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Stories, history and blues come together for the opening show of NYU Abu Dhabi’s Barzakh Festival.

Kicking off the online festivities on Wednesday, February 3, is US singer-songwriter Martha Redbone, who performs songs inspired by her heritage.

Born in the southern city of Kentucky to a family from African and Native American descent, Redbone has crafted more than two decades worth of folk songs that shed light on their experiences and cultures – many of which have been forgotten and ignored.

Speaking to The National from her New York home, she describes her work as way of filling some important gaps in American history.

"These cultures that I am sharing with people are part of the underlying fabric of the American story," she says.

"Part of that story is the music by people of African-American and Native American descent whose music is the foundation of blues, roots and gospel, which went on to form rock and roll, and so forth."

Short stories in song

Redbone will demonstrate these connections through her Abu Dhabi performance, when her songs and stories will intertwine for what should be a riveting evening.

For a preview of what’s to come, check out her online set, in the video below, for the virtual Global Fest earlier this month.

Backed by a guitarist and keyboardist, the trio managed to capture the intimacy and grit of a live show, although performing this kind of gig hasn't come naturally to Redbone.

“Who studies all these years to be a musician to only end up on a screen?” she says with a sigh. “A lot of what we do relies on social gathering and sense of community. So to suddenly remove that is similar to cutting off one of the senses. But a lot of independent musicians have to keep working, so we had to manage in this new landscape.”

While the format is not ideal, Redbone’s work translates well online, thanks to its brevity. There is no large production nor flamboyant musicianship. What is offered, instead, is something immersive and, at times, ethereal.

Redbone takes us deep into the south, with evocative songs offering slices of past American life, set in places such as the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River.

"The songs are self-contained and are like vignettes," she says. "While it talks about a particular period or place, they are individually their own worlds."

That approach is best exemplified in the acclaimed 2004 album Skin Talk, with its rustic tracks exploring subjects such as the healing practices of Native Americans (Medicine Man), the struggle for identity (Skin) and a less divisive future (Children of Love).

Now, all of this could have sounded cumbersome if it wasn't for the colourful arrangements that incorporate nods to funk and soul.

Lyrically, these songs also feature a cast of everyday characters, from fathers to mothers, and farmers to storekeepers. This is down to how Redbone came across these stories in the first place.

“The oral tradition is very important in my family and that’s really how my previous generations grew up,” she says. “That is where they learned. So whenever we gather for an occasion – whether it’s a birth or death – you will hear these stories. And as a kid growing up around that and raised by my grandparents, I was able to hear these stories first hand.”

The fact that some listeners may be astounded by the collective wisdom of these tales doesn’t surprise Redbone.

“When we talk about intellectualism, you have to understand that it is relative,” she says.

“Because most of the time, unfortunately, it is based on European perspective or value, which never included Africans, let alone an African-American or an indigenous person. These cultures have a great oral tradition that have also contributed so much to our understanding.”

Counting her blessings

To introduce these stories and values to unsuspecting audiences comes with a certain level of responsibility that other musicians would have shied away from.

But Redbone doesn’t see it that way.

"I don't look at it as a weight, but as a blessing," she says. "I come from humble beginnings and my generation is the first who graduated to college and only two generations ago my grandmother had no shoes. So when I think about how I am able to make a living by going on stage and sharing stories and using language from home deeply inspires me."

Martha Redbone Roots Project will perform on Wednesday, February 3 at 8pm. The show will be streamed on the NYU  Abu Dhabi Arts Centre Facebook, YouTube and website.

More information is at www.nyuad-artscenter.org