There may never be another musician like Otha Turner.
Turner, who died Thursday at age 94, was one of the last living purveyors of African-American fife-and-drum music, a rugged, rural, often hypnotic form that pre-dates the development of modern blues.
Combining pounding rhythm from snare and bass drums with the strangely rich wisp of the bandleader’s flute, fife-and-drum songs sound both primal and sophisticated, possessing a rough complexity that keeps them grounded in the roots of tradition while staying free to explore musically.
The Rising Star Fife-And-Drum Band, led by Turner and consisting of members of his family, has been the premier — and one of the only remaining — exponents of this music. With upwards of eight members trading off on percussion and vocal duties, while Turner lays down the fife lines on top of the rhythmic funk, the Rising Star Band creates a sound that is always interesting, sometimes shambling and — at its best — almost orgasmically intense.
In fact, having been a witness to several of the Rising Star Fife-And-Drum Band’s performances, this writer must admit a certain inability to describe the miraculous and highly unique sound created by Turner and his family.
Like many musicians of Mississippi’s northern “Hill Country,” Turner achieved much of his fame in the past 10 years, when his music was championed by youthful acolytes like the North Mississippi All-Stars and the young owners of Fat Possum Records.
Martin Scorsese also become interested in the power of Turner’s music, featuring one of his songs as score for the opening scene of his recent “Gangs Of New York.” Luckily for everyone, Scorsese also recently filmed a segment with Turner and his band for an upcoming PBS series about the blues.
Although his music is not blues in a strict stylistic sense, Turner never forgot the connections between his music and that which it preceded; an extended version of Little Walter’s “My Babe” was always a highlight of the band’s set.
The group’s repertoire also stretched into gospel (“When I Lay My Burden Down”) and African-American ring songs (“Ride Sally Ride).
Mr. Turner also acted as the guiding spirit of the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival, a free, yearly concert in Clarksdale, Miss. Although the festival featured national performers every year, it was the local and regional artists — some as-yet undiscovered outside the area — who usually provided many of the highlights.
The festival’s second day would be christened by a parade, led by Turner and his band, from the building which housed the acoustic performances to the main stage, where Turner and his band would perform with their typical fire and intensity.
Dignified and ready to roll, dressed in his trademark overalls and dancing even at age 94, Turner invigorated the proceedings every time he was present. It is a loss that the festival will feel deeply.
Although, like so many of his generation, Turner’s life and music are vulnerable to much romanticizing, the music which he produced is a remnant of another musical era, and with him dies one of the last remaining links to it.
Luckily, his family — including his young granddaughter, who made her public debut at the Sunflower Festival two years ago — plans to continue as The Rising Star Fife-and-Drum Band, ensuring that Turner’s spirit will live on in the ghostly melody and driving rhythm of the music which he nearly single-handedly helped to preserve.