When is a Swede not a Swede? When he lives in Washington, DC, learns his craft from the streets and sounds like a cross between Buddy Guy and John Mayall. The non- Swede in question is 49-year-old bluesman Robert Lighthouse, who will be in the country next week to perform free shows at the Mike’s Place branches in Tel Aviv, Eilat and Jerusalem (October 23, 24 and 26 respectively, all 10 p.m.), as well as giving a master class and taking part in a jam session at the Herzliya Mike’s Place branch on October 27 (starts 8 p.m.).
The original bluesmen were traveling troubadours who took their guitar or harmonica with them on the road and constantly looked for new pastures – more often than not, makeshift venues where African-American laborers gathered for a few hours’ respite from their arduous day jobs.
While Lighthouse does not have any familial connections with the Deep South, he has certainly got the traveling bug and, like his musical predecessors, he absorbs vibes and energies from all kinds of places.
“My dad came from Yugoslavia, and I have family from Finland on my mom’s side,” he says, adding that having a mixed genetic bag can help to spread a musician’s horizons.
“You get a lot of influences from different parts of the world, and it also makes you feel a part of everywhere and nowhere. I don’t feel Swedish, and I don’t feel Croatian, like my dad.”
Then again, America is, of course, the greatest cultural melting pot of them all.
“But I have lived most of my life in America, and I feel good in America because here, everyone is from somewhere. I hear it’s the same in Israel, so I guess I should feel comfortable when I get there, too,” he says.
Lighthouse got turned on to the blues as a teenager in Sweden, and it was partly as a result of his lack of athletic prowess.
“I was 14 and lots of my friends were into sports, but I wasn’t good at sport,” he recounts. “So I started getting into the blues.”
And it was the acoustic roots blues sound of Mississippi rather than the electric-enhanced blues that came out of Chicago that pulled him in.
“I really liked the old rural blues, even though I grew up with Chicago blues. I really liked people like Muddy Waters and Jimi Hendrix. I was very much into Hendrix and probably took a few licks of his,” he says. “When I heard Muddy Waters, I thought, ‘That’s great. That’s what I want to hear.’ Then I thought that I could maybe somehow learn to play that. I had an electric guitar, and I tried to figure out how to play the notes by memory, but I didn’t do too well to begin with,” he admits.
So while his contemporaries headed for jock status, Lighthouse and a fellow blues lover immersed themselves ever deeper in the exciting sounds that came out of the other side of the Atlantic.
“The other guys, the athletes, thought I was really strange, but I didn’t care,” he says. “I never thought twice about what they were doing and what I was doing.
I just loved the blues, and I was totally wrapped up in it. Nothing else really mattered back then,” he explains.
But Lighthouse says he was always looking for new horizons.
“I know that a lot of American blues guys find a style and really stick to it, which is also a great skill – someone like [late blues guitarist and singer] Stevie Ray Vaughan was great with that. But I take things from here and there, and I just play them the way they come out,” he says.
That go-with-the-flow musical approach, says the Swede, comes naturally to him.
“That just comes from my personality. I like to look around and learn from all sorts of people and places and just let the music come together. I listen to musicians from places like Mali and see how the blues comes full circle. There are a lot of Middle Eastern influences in Mali, and the blues is very universal. So I hear all sorts of things in the blues, even Indian music and Arabic stuff,” he notes.
There is a school of thought that maintains that music can’t be taught in the cloistered environs of institutions and that it is the university of the streets where musicians should learn their craft. Lighthouse goes along with that.
When he got to DC in the late 1980s, he spent hours playing in the streets, observing passers-by and the ebb and flow of urban life, and even mixing things musically.
“It was a great feeling for me to jam with all those people from different backgrounds. In the summer, it felt a bit like a neverending street party. And what was best, you could see how music really works. And there were so many kinds of people who’d stop and listen to me for a while. They could be rich or poor or from all sorts of cultures. That’s the great thing about music – it bridges over people’s ethnicity,” he remarks.
While he’s here, no doubt Lighthouse will get the chance to jam and perform for people with all sorts of cultural background, and it will be interesting to see if, and how, his “Israeli experience” informs his future work.
“I am just really happy to be coming to Israel. It’s going to be great,” he says.
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