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It seemed that at its core, it had this sense of honesty about it," says Dan Treanor of the blues and how it has become a lifelong obsession. "It seemed like it touched something inside of me that allowed me to look at things from a different perspective.
"The blues isn't all about being sad," he adds. "It can be about being happy and having a good time and partying. The thing that I think touched me from the very beginning is that it wasn't too pretentious. Growing up in Pueblo back in the '60s, the Beach Boys were really big — [but] not where I was. How can you relate to that whole lifestyle if you don't even know anything about it? It seemed like with blues and R&B, especially in the neighborhood I grew up in and the guys I grew up with, it just seemed like I could relate to it more naturally."
Born in 1947, Treanor grew up on the east side of Pueblo, which was predominantly Hispanic. Living there, he listened to the venerable KPAI, a Spanish-language station, and to one of its more adventurous hosts, Al Gurule, who mixed a bit of Chuck Berry, B.B. King, Jimmy Reed, Wynonie Harris and other blues and R&B artists of the era into his playlist.
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When he was about fifteen, Treanor says, he got his first musical instrument, a Sears Silvertone guitar. In 1969, he went to Vietnam as an infantryman with the 9th Division in the Mekong Delta. It was there that he met Bernie Willer, a guy who changed his life. "He played a little bit of harmonica, and it was like, 'Man, that's cool! How do you do that?'" Treanor recalls. "He showed me, and I've been doing it ever since. I survived all that and came back with all my parts in place and most of my mind, but also this interest in playing the harmonica.
"Also at that point," Treanor continues, "Bernie knew a lot more about music than I did. He was from the Twin Cities and had been exposed to a lot more music than I had up to that time. He turned me on to a lot of things. I always loved the blues, but I didn't know a whole lot about it. He turned me on to some of the icons of the blues, like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Jimmy Reed. When I got back from Vietnam, I got it in my mind that I would check out what this was all about, and for the next several years, I went on this kind of quest to see these guys. I actually saw Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed and all the great blues icons, to learn as much as I could about what they were doing."
Treanor also took advantage of the G.I. Bill to get a master's degree in history with an emphasis on the American Civil War and Reconstruction. This afforded him the opportunity to explore his love of the blues on an academic level, as well, and in later years, he developed a program called Blues in the Schools, for which the Blues Foundation presented him with the prestigious Keeping Blues Alive Award.
"I tell the kids, 'Yeah, the blues came from the Delta. Not the Mississippi Delta, the Niger Delta,'" Treanor says, noting how he discusses the cultural roots of blues with students. "It's really the journey that the blues took. It started in West African culture with the call-and-response thing. They didn't have a written language, and they passed their stories and histories through the music. Of course, folks were forced into slavery and brought those concepts with them. The earliest forms of the blues were field hollers and work songs."
"All popular forms of American music have their roots in that format," Treanor adds. "The West Africans forced into slavery here were exposed to Western European musical influences — specifically, the musical instruments like pianos, violins, violas, harmonicas and that type of thing. And also the Celtic scale, which is based on a pentatonic scale with flatted fifths and sevenths. When you put the rhythmic roots of West African music together with call-and-response storytelling and you add Western influences like the instruments and the scale, you get the blues. That's where it came from."
At one point Treanor realized he had to demonstrate an early blues instrument for his students, so he put together a diddley bow — also known as a jitterbug box — from pieces of wood and guitar parts. It was largely an academic exercise until one night he was rehearsing with his band and someone asked about the instrument. Next thing you know, Treanor and his band — which has since become known as the Afrosippi Band — were writing grooves with it.
The band's name was inspired by reviews of the group's 2004 album, African Wind, issued on the Canadian imprint Northern Blues. "There was a writer for Living Blues magazine named Art Tipaldi," Treanor explains. "He wrote something like, 'This is a combination of African roots and Mississippi blues. I think we'll call it Afrosippi Blues.' It kind of stuck."