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Virtually alone in making their kind of music, Othar Turner and his Rising Star Fife & Drum Band find themselves classified as blues by default. It’s not an entirely unfair lumping together; though much older, the fife-and-drum tradition is rooted in the same poor, black, rural experience as the blues. And there are harmonic and structural similarities. But don’t go see Turner this Thursday at the Flying Saucer — playing a markedly different (thankfully so) kind of benefit for the WKNO public radio stations — expecting to see a good times blues throw down. Turner’s music is unlike any you’ve ever heard.

The African-American fife-and-drum tradition dates back to the early 1800s when newly arrived West African slaves were forced to take up their owners’ European instruments and musical forms. But the slaves’ adaptations to the form were significant. In some ways the music is the opposite of blues; instead of complex guitar lines played above a bare-bones drum beat, a large multi-member drum ensemble lays down complex, syncopated rhythms while a piper plays variations on a simple tune.

Though it survived pretty well intact into the 20th century through country picnics and such, going into the next fife and drum is close to becoming a musical footnote. Today, Turner, 93, and his band, made up of relatives, are the only ones still playing it. And, perhaps not surprisingly, this singing, fifing anachronism is at the peak of his popularity. His 1998 release Everybody Hollerin’ Goat (produced by the North Mississippi All-Stars Luther Dickinson) was named one of the top five blues albums of the ’90 by Rolling Stone. He’s nominated for a Handy blues award in the miscellaneous instrument category for his appearance on the Handy nominated Living Country Blues, an essential three-CD reissue taken from the early ’80s field recordings of Siegfried Christmann and featuring other area great artists such as the late CeDell Davis and Lonnie Pitchford. And later this month look for the release of Turner’s second CD on Birdman records, From Senegal to Senatobia.

The Flying Saucer show starts at 8 p.m., and admission is $5. For more information, call 325-6544.


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