Michael Roach on playing in Dubai and destiny as he prepares for Dubai's Crossroads-shaped blues fest
‘I didn’t choose the music, the music chose me.’ It’s a phrase that, if you work in music journalism for long enough (long enough being about a week or so), will become more than familiar to you. But when Michael Roach says it over a shaky phone line we believe him. Partly because of his dry, soulful accent, but mostly because of this: ‘[In the late ’70s] I heard this old-timer playing the blues in West Virginia and it stopped me dead in my tracks,’ he explains. ‘I said, “Man, what’s going on? You make that guitar talk.” And it did, I can’t think of a better word for it. The music spoke to me and woke something up inside me.’
The old man turned out to be John Cephas, a musician who would later find success as one half of blues pairing Cephas and Wiggins. He became Michael’s mentor alongside another experienced musician, John Jackson. But everything they taught Michael nearly amounted to nothing: after spending the ’80s playing blues, he entered the ’90s in a state of despair. ‘I was disgusted with the blues scene back then. Black people just didn’t want to know when it came to the blues – I was president of a blues society in Washington, DC, a city with a 90 per cent black population, and only 15 to 20 per cent of our members were black. So I stopped playing the blues from 1991 to 1992.
‘One day John Jackson called me and asked how I was, because I hadn’t called him in a long time. I told him I’d stopped playing and he was shocked. He said, “That’s why I gave it to you, so you’ll be there to tell the story. You spent all these years learning this and now you’re going to give it all away?” And I was crying on the phone, I just felt so bad.’
So it was that Michael returned to blues, not only releasing his first album, Ain’t Got Me No Home, in 1993, but going on to spread the word through both lectures (including some at the UK’s University of Oxford and the Smithsonian Institute in the USA) and live shows. And it’s the latter that’s bringing him to Dubai with eight other musicians for a four-day event at Century Village.
Titled Back To The Crossroads – a reference to the crossroads at which blues musician Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul for mastery of the guitar – it will explore the rich history of blues music through songs old and new. ‘Blues is universal,’ enthuses Michael. ‘Blues underpins almost all modern music, so we’ll be playing new blues tracks too. But I like to focus on the blind guys, the crippled guys, the peg-legged guys – like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Boy Fuller, Peg Leg Howell – who would play on street corners because they couldn’t get jobs. So I like to take street music and put it in the context of an educational performance.
‘Exactly what I do depends on the audience, though – if they’re receptive then I’ll speak a little bit about the history and the context, because that’s just as important as the music, if not more so. But if they’re just there to listen to the music then I’ll shelve that. It’s all about putting on a good show.’
It’s a show that Michael will, in one form or another, be performing for some time to come. ‘I don’t have a choice,’ he laughs, ‘I can’t walk away from it. I just can’t. I’ve realised that I was chosen for this. I’m honestly not one of those people that usually believes in that kind of thing, but when I look at what I’ve experienced, the things that have happened to me, I can’t come to any other conclusion.’ Back To The Crossroads plays at Century Village, January 22-25