Featured Interview – Michael Damani

Interview of this young and up and coming guitarist on the Chicago blues scene by Mike Stephenson took place in Chicago in 2019. Many thanks go to Jim Feeney for all of his help.

michael damani photo 1My name is Michael Damani, that is the name I perform under. Domani is my given middle name my last name is Strautmanis and it’s a name from Latvia, Eastern Europe, that means ‘a man by the river’. My dad’s father was not with the family for very long and my grandmother remarried a Latvian immigrant and his name was Juris ‘George’ Strautmanis so I took the family name. I was born in Oak Park, Illinois and raised in the Washington DC area, Silver Spring, Maryland.

I was born in 1994, April 4th. My first instrument was the drums and I studied with an eighty nine year old guy and he was awesome and then I didn’t have many people to play with, so I kinda put the drums down and I didn’t pick up the guitar until I was fifteen. I was taking a class in school. I wanted to take a basketball class as I was into basketball and I wanted to get on the basketball team but that class was full so the elective course that I chose as a secondary course was a guitar and drum class, it was kind of a mistake but the greatest mistake that’s ever happened to me. I was like ten or eleven when I was playing the drums to start with. My third grade teacher she was really into the drums at the time and she was taking drum lessons and she was telling the students all about the drum lessons and I was watching her do her air drum thing and it looked like the coolest thing ever, so I started lying to her in the class that I was taking drum lessons too. Then she eventually caught on that I was bullshitting her and she called me out on it so that’s when I actually started taking the lessons.

I then started playing the guitar at fifteen years old, playing guitar at ensemble classes and I started getting more serious and got a private mentor and stayed with him in DC, studying all kinds of stuff, blues, jazz, classical, and then I started thinking about going to school for music., did school for about a year and then left. Then I came back to Chicago because there was a group that I had started when I was in school and the group was still active, so I wanted to come back so I could be with the group, so that was initially the reason I came back to Chicago. The group was named Gloria Step it was like a rock group but it was pretty short lived. After that I started to want to stay in Chicago. My mother wanted me to come back home as she thought that Chicago wasn’t working out for me and she thought that if I came back home I could try something out there, but I wanted to stay in Chicago as I thought something would work out for me here.

michael damani photo 2Long story short, within several years I ended up getting into the blues community here. How this happened was I was working as a bike messenger, downtown mostly, and I saw these two horn players that were on the street and I asked them where I could go to some jam sessions around town and they told me about Norman’s Bistro which is a spot on 43rd Street. It’s more of a jazz jam session, so that is the first jam session I was introduced to in Chicago and it was a really great experience and it helped revitalize me and I felt that I had a lot of creative energy and a lot of ambition. I just wanted to keep exploring music and see if I could find a niche that I could fit into. I was able to do that through the blues community. There is a drummer in Norman’s Bistro jazz jam sessions who told me that I seemed more of a blues player and he told me I should go to this place and that place. He told me about B.L.U.E.S on Halsted and Buddy Guy’s and Rosa’s Lounge and all these spots. So I started going to those clubs’ blues jams and then I became determined to find a band that needed a guitar player that had like a house gig, like the ones I was going to. I was able to find that through a harmonica player named Art Perkins who I met at Rosa’s Lounge, and he invited me to a jam session at 2337 South Michigan on Thursday and there is a jam session there put on by some great guys. So i came to the jam session and it turned out they were having a benefit concert for their guitar player John Watkins. He had had a stroke and they were having a benefit concert for his recovery because he had all kinds of medical expenses. They were also organizing a jam session as well. This was December of 2016 and I came with my axe and jammed with the Original Chicago Blues All Stars who are Jimmy Tillman, Freddie Dixon and John Watkins and within a week I got a call from Jimmy Tillman asking me if I could do a gig with them on New Years Eve and I’ve been with the group ever since. So that was the manifestation that I had been looking for and it happened in a really beautiful way and it’s been the start of my whole career and journey. It is certainly good company to be in.

michael damani photo 3I’ve played with other artists here on the Chicago blues scene. I’ve played with Mary Lane off and on. Louisiana Al I’ve played with and some others, and I’ve played with others outside of the blues community. I’ve played with some in the jazz community, like with a young up and coming sax player and a really great group named Tamari Team Electric Company. It’s kinda like a modern day Parliament/ Funkadelic type of thing. I’ve started my own group and I’ve been doing that for quite some time and I’m still doing that and it’s under my own name and it’s mostly blues we play. John Lowler was my bass player for a while and he is working with the Cash Box Kings and he is deep into the blues community. Through my experiences at Motor Row Brewing on S. Michigan, I’ve shared the stage with a lot of legendary cats like Jimmy Johnson, which was a great experience and, before he passed, I played with Eddie Shaw. You never know who is going to come by there and sometimes there are only a few people there and other times it’s a packed house. Shirley King is there and Omar Coleman, the harmonica player, Wayne Baker Brooks and I get the chance to play with those artists, it’s really cool.

I have done some recordings with Mary Lane on one of her CDs actually. I was playing the keyboards on one of her CDs and that was a great experience. Besides that I’ve not done any recordings as yet, other than a recording session under my own name with the Chicago Blues All Stars. It’s a single that we recorded, a song called ‘Black Bags’ which is about gun violence. It was a writing collaboration between myself and Jimmy Tillman, the drummer for the group.

michael damani photo 4The blues community has been more than welcoming to me and it takes time to get to know people and it takes time for them to get to know me. At this point I have been around for about three years and there are some spots that I go in and they know me, like Buddy Guy’s and spots like Kingston Mines. I’m definitely part of the community and the Chicago blues scene.

I plan on keeping my own band together and I think it’s necessary to have a good mental balance because I don’t want in any way to discourage my presence with the Chicago Blues All Stars and I think I’m really lucky to be with them, but at the same time I want to continue to do my own thing and eventually expand and be able to have my own name out there and be prominent in blues circles and not just in Chicago. I have traveled with the All Stars. We have been to Brazil and France. In Brazil we were there with Harmonica Hinds and we are planning on going to Australia. I am planning on writing more songs in the future, blues and otherwise.

I’m familiar with some of the other young African-American blues artists now out there, like Jamiah Rogers and Nick Alexander, who is Linsey Alexander’s son, and there is a young dude named Kaleb Tucker who is a guitar player, but not so much in the blues community but in other music areas around Chicago, but he does play the blues. I’m familiar with the McDowell Brothers and they are still playing and we had a gig with them at the Quarry recently.

I sing also and some of my influences on vocals are like Eddie Floyd and Barrett Strong and I like tenor singers and, on the guitar, influences are definitely a lot of B.B. King and Albert King. I like to be able to float between those two styles and I like Hendrix too. I guess not so much of the old school players; although I appreciate them, I guess I’m more of a modern guy. I also play keyboards and sometimes play that instrument on Mary Lane’s live shows. I have played the Chicago Blues festival but at Rosa’s Lounge tent, not on any of the main stages. For the future I want to establish myself as a solo artist, which will probably mean finding a label to sign and record with. I have original stuff that I can record. There is this guy Steve McKeever who has this label Hidden Beach Recordings and he is out in Los Angeles and I was on one of those tracks on one of his label’s albums. I told him I was looking to get signed in the future and he has asked me to send him some of my stuff, which I did and we are staying in touch. Music is currently a full time thing for me which is good. I teach some music students as well. I try to study the history of the blues and the guys I’m with in the All Stars are really big on the history, so I’ve gotten a lot of history from them. Even before then, documentaries and books I read and watch, and I’m reading the Howlin’ Wolf biography ‘Moanin’ At Midnight’ now.

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