Featured Interview – Big Harp George

imageBig Harp George earned Blues Music Awards and Blues Blast Music Awards nominations for best new artist of the year in 2014, an amazing feat considering that he was making his debut as a front man at age 59. But as great an achievement as that is, it pales in comparison to many of the other earlier accomplishments he’d made in life.

A dapper dresser with a rich tenor voice and a unique view of the troubles we all endure in this world, he was born George Bisharat in Topeka, Kan., in 1954, but has been based in San Francisco for decades. Far more than an entertainer, his back story is so deep that it will amaze you even more than his talent on the chromatic harmonica – a technique that’s redefining how his instrument can be played.

One of the best educated performers in any medium, music has always played a role in George’s life, as Blues Blast learned in a recent interview. In fact, it’s the reason he’s here with us today.

His mother, Mary, was working in a store in Connecticut that sold music and books when her future husband, Dr. Maurice Bisharat, dropped in to purchase sheet music, beginning a love with no end. She was the product of a prominent New England family, and he was a Palestinian Christian who’d emigrated to the U.S. after his family’s palatial ancestral home in Rafidia – now a neighborhood in Nablus in the West Bank – was seized by the Israelis in the late ‘40s.

Devoted, loving parents, they wanted to be certain that all of their children assimilated into the culture of their father’s adopted home, giving all of their kids American — rather than Arabic — names and taught them only English because the father felt Arabic was too difficult and complex to learn.

A physician who’d graduated from American University of Beirut (AUB), one of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in the Middle East, Maurice was studying for an advanced degree in psychiatry at Menninger Clinic – now based in Houston – when George was born. The family relocated frequently after he graduated and started practice as a military physician – a job that landed him at Fort Meade in South Dakota and other spots in the Midwest before settling in Southern California.

“My dad loved Western classical music – something he’d gotten into while still living in Palestine,” George remembers. “His other musical love was tango. I have a lot of memories of him dancing around the house with my mom or other guests when I was young. And my mom, she loved classical music.

“My dad was particularly obsessed by violin music. They used to take us to concerts, classical mostly, and he tried to get me to play violin, which I did for a couple of years when I was eight, nine, ten.

“I really have to say I loathed it,” Bisharat chuckles. “I didn’t enjoy it one bit. Despite his best efforts, I gave it up. My mom was much broader in her musical tastes. I think she actually took me to a performance by Josh White about that same age — that’s the first blues I ever heard in my life. She took me to see Pete Seeger, too.

“And my sister took me to the Ash Grove (the famous folk club in Los Angeles) and to see the Rolling Stones at the Hollywood Bowl, and Bob Dylan, too. She played piano, my older brother played cello and another played guitar, so there was a lot of music going on in the family.”

Extremely bright from birth, George skipped kindergarten, enrolling in first grade at age four. Despite witnessing White – one of the most important figures in the early-‘60s, folk-blues era, he didn’t truly discover the blues until after Bill, his eldest brother, caught the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in action when he attended a love-in – one of the peaceful gatherings that focused on meditation, music and sex during the psychedelic period of the late ‘60s.

“He came home raving about him,” Bisharat says. “Soon, we had East-West blaring on the stereo through the house.”

imageOne of the most successful releases the band’s catalog, in addition to featuring Butterfield’s breakthrough riffs on harp, it also featured both Mike Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop on guitars. And although Bisharat didn’t credit it in this interview, it’s almost certain that – because of its modal chord changes and extended jams that incorporated jazz element — it instilled in him some of the choices that appear in his own music today.

At the time, he says, Butterfield’s harp play really stood out in a time in which “no one really played it competently” in popular music — think Neil Young, Bob Dylan and a young John Mayall, just to name a few.

Bisharat picked up a diatonic harp – a gift from his guitarist brother who’d never done anything with it — sometime in his freshman or sophomore year of high school, after the family had relocated to Sacramento. A vocalist in rock bands, George had long, flowing locks at the time – something, he says, he got away with after pointing out to his mom that all of the Founding Fathers on U.S. currency had long hair, too.

“I remember trying to play what everybody else was playing in those days…Paul Butterfield’s version of ‘The Work Song,’” he says. “But I had a friend who said: ‘Butterfield and John Mayall and all those guys are fine, but you’ve really gotta listen to Sonny Boy Williamson.’

“I got my first Sonny Boy album…my first real blues album…and that sent me. I was also listening to Taj Mahal, and saw him a number of times. All of that got me going on the harp.”

Bisharat graduated at age 17 and enrolled in University of California-Davis, where he roomed with his sister, who was also a student. He joined his first band as a harmonica player after meeting a couple of musicians who were working alongside his sister in the school’s genetics lab.

“It was acoustic guitar, electric guitar and me,” he says. “And my older brother who played cello played bass with us for a while. He had no idea about what he was doing (chuckles)! We played a few parties and a bar in Davis that I wouldn’t have been able to get in if I didn’t look a little older than I was. I had a goatee and mustache by that time, so I passed for a 21-year-old.”

Bisharat left the band and California altogether after his sophomore year for a break year to follow in the family tradition of studying abroad. Like his father and several other relatives, he traveled to Lebanon to enroll at AUB, where one of his aunts was working as an English professor.

At the time, Beirut was still considered to be “The Paris of the Middle East,” a lush paradise of cypress and tall palm trees, a welcoming middle ground that fused the best of Eastern and Western culture and tradition in a modern setting – something that would change dramatically only two short years later when the civil unrest that had been bubbling for years exploded into open warfare.

“It was a very gripping experience to be there in those days,” George says today, noting that there were occasional skirmishes, military flyovers and signs of trouble on the horizon. “I totally fell in love with the place…a beautiful city, wonderful culture, great food, beautiful women and a free social environment.”

Shortly after his arrival, Bisharat fell in with what he terms “a mixed bag of musicians – Americans and Arabs from differing locales. “They’d already been playing together for a while, but their harp player had returned to the United States,” he says. “I came in and took over his seat.”

It was George who suggested they call themselves the Bliss Street Blues Band, a name that honored one founders of the university, Daniel L. Bliss, and the road that borders the campus on one side while also alluding to the feeling they hoped audiences would achieve when listening to their music.

It was no ragtag group. The lead guitarist was Otis Grand, a Beirut native now based in London. A musical nomad of sorts who’s also lived in Paris and the Bay Area who’s worked with Joe Louis Walker, Guitar Shorty, Sugar Ray Norcia and Luther Allison, he was a fixture in the ‘80s at Eli’s Mile High Club in Oakland and was a W.C. Handy Award nominee in 1992 for the album He Knows the Blues in 1992.

“He was good then, too,” George says as an understatement. “He’s a very smart guy, and was very hard-working and dedicated to his instrument.”

Still a neophyte at the instrument, Bisharat quickly became aware of Junior Wells, James Cotton and Little Walter through his bandmates. “That year, I grew a lot as a harmonica player and started gaining an understanding of the blues genre,” he says. “We had fun gigs and exciting times. We were sorta the top band in the city, and have enduring ties today amongst all of us. The drummer, Raja Kuwar, played on my first two albums.”

It was only natural that George began studying Arabic while based in the Middle East, albeit in a colloquial Lebanese dialect, he says. Although the sounds are difficult for many people, he quickly realized that they weren’t foreign to him after hearing them at family gatherings.

imageReturning home for his senior year, he planned on pursuing his interest in the language and enrolled in UC-Berkeley primarily because it wasn’t offered as a course of instruction at Davis. He subsequently received a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and planned on returning to Beirut — where he had a teaching fellowship awaiting him — for post-graduate studies.

With the war raging, Bisharat arrived in Lebanon to find the university shuttered. He attended Georgetown University and earned a master’s in history there instead. “I had a fabulous experience in Washington,” he says. “There’s the real city of D.C., and there’s the political city. I’m not saying that ‘never the twain shall meet,’ but they’re very different. It’s a really cool, Southern city.

“And there was a lot of great music going on. The Childe Harold club was only four blocks from my home. I wasn’t playing with anybody, but I was listening a lot, going to clubs and working on my own chops. I bought my first chromatic when I was living in D.C. It was a Hohner CBH.”

Distinctly different from other chromatics, this one was designed by Cham-Ber Huang, the classical performer who was considered to be the Paganini and Stradivarius of the instrument. He also co-designed Hohner’s popular Golden Melody diatonic. His chromatic positioned the slide internally and lower on the body that other models to prevent bending when dropped, and its body was constructed out of a hard plastic resin that improved its resistance to wear.

“Like a lot of blues players,” George admits, “I didn’t do much with it. I did a little third-position playing with almost no use of the slider. Bliss Street had a reunion in Beirut in 2006, and I think that was the first time I ever played chromatic on stage.”

Unlike diatonics, which are built to specific keys and require the player to bend reeds to play the flatted notes required to play the blues scale, the great majority of chromatics are constructed in the key of C and two sets of reeds that allow the musician access to all keys in the musical scale — providing they develop the skill required to alternate between reed plates through use of the button – something few achieve.

Most blues tunes played on chromatic are played in third position and in the key of D, George points out, primarily because all of the required notes – including the flatted third and seventh “blue” notes –are available by blow and draw without having to shift plates.

Harmonica – and music in general – took a back seat for Bisharat once he reached adulthood. He subsequently attended Harvard, where he received a PhD in anthropology and Middle East studies and where he graduated cum laude from Harvard Law School, then returned to the Bay Area and worked as a criminal defense attorney and deputy public defender.

In 1991, he became a professor at UC-Hastings College of Law in San Francisco, a position he maintained full time until 2016. Now a professor emeritus, he’s been splitting his time between performing and teaching criminal procedure – a course he developed – since “retiring” from his full-time career.

Away from the classroom, Bisharat’s the author of Palestinian Lawyers and Israeli Rule: Law and Disorder in the West Bank. Published in 1990 and based on his doctoral dissertation, it remains an important text in the field. He’s also worked in concert with the Palestinian Legislative Council in an effort to reform and develop its judiciary system. A member of the editorial board of the Journal of Palestine Studies, his commentaries on Israeli-Palestinian relations have appeared in Wall Street Journal and New York Times and on national TV news broadcasts.

Now, a committed blues artist, his background plays heavily in the tunes he writes today – songs that reveal a deep understanding and compassion for victims of injustice wherever it’s found, not just the Middle East or in the courts and slums of the New World.

George’s desire to play again started to develop in 2001, when Otis Grand planted the seed during a stay in the Bay Area while recording the album Guitar Brothers with Joe Louis Walker.

“He came home from the studio one evening and said: ‘Hey, George, we’re one song short of an album,’” he recalls. “’Why don’t you come down and record?’

“We sat in my living room and ran through the song a couple of times, an instrumental he called ‘Bliss Street Blues.’ We went in and knocked it out the next day.

“At that time roughly, he said to me: ‘George, look… You’re doin’ professional quality stuff. Why don’t you get yourself a little band and start performing?’ I kinda hemmed and hawed. I was busy with my career and had my kids. They were still pretty young at the time.

“But something that he said really stuck with me. I was saying: ‘What do I have to contribute to the blues world? What do I have that would be a contribution to the musical discussion in the blues?’ He said: ‘George, you never know what you’re capable of until you try it.’

“That really resonated with me – especially later, when I started doing the chromatic and started to produce sounds that I never heard anybody else do before.”

imageAt the time, he says, he still was carrying a diatonic harp in his pocket or briefcase wherever he went, and he regularly pulled it out to tickle the reeds while walking between the train station and his office. But he wasn’t involved in the music scene in any way.

“But I’d get bored by the music I was listening to,” he remembers. “Then I bought this harmonica compilation album (Essential Blues Harmonica on the House of Blues label), and it had Paul deLay’s song, ‘Why Can’t You Love Me’ on it.”

For Bisherat, it was a life-changer.

He’d always been an admirer of George “Harmonica” Smith, who played with Muddy Waters and teamed with Rod Piazza in Bacon Fat. And he was well aware of William Clarke, another great player, too.

But deLay was different. Like Little Walter on diatonic, Paul’s attack on the instrument had taken it into territory it had never gone before. A native of Portland, Ore., who lived a troubled life and succumbed to leukemia at age 55, his inventiveness as a songwriter was also beyond compare

“Paul was like he came from a different planet,” George says today. “That song…it took me a while before I could figure out that he wasn’t playing in third position. He plays it in second position – something I’d never heard anybody do before – not to say that others hadn’t done it before him.

“Then I started listening to his other stuff, and it really, truly inspired to me. When I began my turn to chromatic, I was trying to play Paul deLay stuff. His progressions are unlike anybody else’s. It got me going. As I continued to experiment, I found that I was trying to kinda transfer my bag of diatonic licks to chromatic.

“Some worked. Some were more difficult. Some came out with modifications. Some came out sounding different – and sounded cool.

“I kept going, and it gradually came to be…to be completely honest…that it was on the chromatic that I finally found my own musical voice come out. Until that time, I’d describe my own playing as ‘derivative.’ Before then, if I sounded any different from the standard, it probably was because I wasn’t as good! My musical ideas were pretty conventional.

“But as I worked more and more on it, I’d say: ‘Man, I’ve never heard anybody play this! And I think it sounds good!”

Clarke has also been influential, George says, but not to the same degree, adding: “If you listen to the song on my first album, ‘Cocktail Hour,’ it is played in second position, which is not something Bill did very often. But it still has a structure that’s similar to his song ‘Greasy Gravy’ – something that was fine with me because it wasn’t exactly his sound, but pretty much inspired by him.

“And his whole jazzy, swinging feel was something that I really, really loved.”

By 2012, Bisharat finally realized he was on to something – a style he now calls “21st Century artisanal blues,” a distinctive, sophisticated and contemporary blend that incorporates jazz, New Orleans and Memphis rhythms and a flavor of Latin America and the Middle East into the blues root.

“That’s when I started having the ambition to record,” he notes. “Before that, I thought: ‘What’s the use? Everything I was doing up until then, people had done before me – and probably had done better.”

The turning point came, he says, when he entered a swing songwriting contest sponsored by David Barrett, the harp player and author who created and operates Harmonica Masterclass Workshops and who founded the first-ever School of Blues in San Jose, Calif., and the man who helped Aki Kumar and a host of others perfect their talent.

“I’ve worked on and off with Dave, taken some lessons from him,” George says. “I decided to enter ‘Chromaticism,’ which I recorded originally to a jam track. I was one of three finalists, and we had the opportunity to play those songs live at Yoshi’s, a nice club we have in Oakland, as part of Mark Hummel’s annual Blues Harmonica Blowout. The backing band included Little Charlie Baty and Billy Flynn on guitars, Bob Welch on keys and June Core on drums.

image“The song is in G, and I go up there with my big, 16-hole C chromatic, and Charlie looks at me and says: ‘What (key) do you want?’ I called the key: ‘It’s G.’ He says: ‘Do you mean G or D?’ When I told him G, he looked at me like ‘are you nuts?’

“We did the song, and somebody else – a really good person and good player – won. The following day, by total coincidence, I ran into Charlie on the street in Berkeley, and he said: ‘What you’re doin’ is really cool. Don’t give it up.’

“Coming from a giant like him, that meant a lot to me…that I’m not crazy. What sounds good to me sounds good to some other really accomplished musicians. That’s what gave me the confidence to invite Charlie to join me on my first album – and all the others, too.”

A chat with Hummel led Bisharat to start working with producer Chris Burns, the longtime keyboard player for Maria Muldaur, as he prepared for his debut album. Burns who suggested Bisharat record at Kid Andersen’s Greaseland Studios, a marriage that was made in heaven.

“Kid convinced me pretty quickly that he knew how to achieve the sound that I was trying to get – especially on harp,” Bisharat remembers, noting that he’d experienced issues in another studio in the past when neither he nor the engineer knew anything about what they were doing.

“Needless to say, after doing four albums with him, I see no reason ever to go anywhere else. I’ve made a lot of progress from my first to fourth recording, and his capabilities are growing as well. He was great six years ago, and he’s even greater now – and I’m the beneficiary of it.”

In addition to Andersen’s ear and skill as a multi-instrumentalist, George says, his sense of humor keeps things loose in the studio despite working at a high level of professionalism. And it doesn’t hurt that Kid’s wife, Lisa Leuschner Andersen, has a beautiful voice, too, which has enhanced the sessions.

Even though Bisharat excels today as a songwriter, he admits that he’d failed miserably in the past. Other than Chromaticism, which mixed six covers and six originals, all of his subsequent CDs have included all of his own material, which puts a unique spin on modern themes – everything from dealing with legal problems, social unrest and the health-care industry to subjects as benign as dating and dealing with modern technology.

“In the past, I’d written a song or two, but they were basically blues clichés,” he says. “I came to realize that I had to do in my songwriting what I do in my harmonica playing, which was to be myself, to write from my own experience.

“Every human being has some kind of blues. You can be wealthy or poor, it doesn’t matter. I needed to look inside, think about things from my own perspective and write songs about my own life – which is not to say that I don’t write songs about other people that I’m around. Once I kinda applied that logic, then the songs started not only to flow but to be a really fun, satisfying experience.”

Today, his arrangements deviate from standard blues progressions to incorporate complex blends of West Coast jump and swing imbued with foreign elements gathered from his travels to South America and across the Arabic crescent, too. And the world has taken notice – so much so, in fact, that Living Blues magazine tagged him as one of 15 rising stars in its harmonica issue that fall almost simultaneously with his debut CD’s release.

“It’s been great working with the people that I do,” George says. “Charlie (who succumbed to a heart attack in March) was a joy. He was a very different personality than Kid – a little gruff, but a smart guy and a gentleman. I think he was inspired a little bit by what we were doing.

“I asked him to play acoustic on ‘Wash My Horse in Champagne,’ the title song of my second album, which was based on Brazilian history and a tune that I’d heard when I was down there. I discovered that Charlie was a big fan of chorinho music, too. He told me that it was the first time he’d ever been invited to record on acoustic guitar.

“I think doing these kind of things was like a breath of fresh air for him. He was just fantastic on all of the stuff he played for me.”

Living in the City, Bisharat’s most recent album, picks up where his 2018 release, Uptown Cool, left off. An hour-long set, it weaves an intricate tapestry of blues with instrumentation that includes the gospel ensemble Sons of the Soul Survivors, Carlos Reyes on Paraguayan harp, Firas Murkus on zither and qanun, Loay Dhbour on iique (an Arabic percussion instrument) as well as a guest appearance from vocalist Amal Murkus, Firas’ mother and a major star in the Holy Land.

image“After each release, I meet with Chris, who’s produced all of my albums – although it’s a responsibility that’s shared by Kid and me, too — to set goals for the next one and to determine what I can do better,” George says. “Going into this one, I thought my vocals could be better, more complex, more interesting. Not just one voice.

“As a musical listener, I crave a certain amount of musical novelty and freshness. I don’t like to hear the same thing over and over. I still go back and listen to the masters, but I’m always looking for new sounds – something that made Paul deLay so inspiring when I first heard him.

“Having the Sons of the Soul Revivers on six songs really changed things up – as did having Lisa Lueschner Anderson help out on some vocal parts and layering her with Loralee Christensen, who’s been on all of my albums. I think that’s the biggest step forward musically with this album. And Amal, too!

“The interest of mixing in some Arabic influences had been on my back burner for a while,” Bisharat says, “even though I’m not trained in Arabic music myself. I’ve heard a lot of it, and it’s pretty bluesy with the microtones and that sort of thing. So I’ve always been intrigued with the possibility of blending it in.”

George had previously met Firas at a fundraiser and recruited him and his mother to participate in the song “Meet Me at the Fence,” which concludes the album. Its music is based on a tune by Brazilian vocalist Ana Carolina, but delivers a universal plea for peace and understanding that applies to the Middle East and so many other trouble spots around the world.

“I was super pleased that Amal and Firas agreed to do it,” he says. “Everybody involved in the song felt that it really came from my heart. Mike Rinta wrote beautiful horn charts for it, and it all blended together into what I think is the best song I’ve ever written. We’re working on a video for it that we won’t release until 2021. The visual part of it will make it very powerful.”

Bisharat is eager to spread his music and message again – something that’s even more important to him because Living in the City was released in the midst of the coronavirus crisis. He’s already thinking about his next release, although it’s still in the planning stages. And he was just about to release a couple of new tunes for the holidays as this interview was conducted.

He remains grateful for all the support and encouragement he’s received in the past few years and he stands in solidarity with his fellow musicians. “This is a devastating time for many people in this business, and my heart goes out to all of them,” he says. “There are some wonderfully talented people in this music and others, and these are tough times.

“To all the people out there who love and make the music, I love them all, support them all and look forward to seeing them all down the line when we’re past this terrible stretch.”

Check out George’s music and, hopefully, where he’ll be playing next by visiting his website: www.bigharpgeorge.com

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