Ring up Benjamin Tehoval and you might be taken aback by the thick, jovial French accent on the other end of the line. When you listen to Benjamin’s one-man-band take on the classic Roosevelt Sykes song “44 Blues,” you could reasonably assume he had deep roots in the South, or had at least lived less than 4,000 miles away for some significant period.
But this bluesman was born in Romania in 1946, grew up in Paris, and settled down in Brussels in the late 1980s. The Belgian city has been his home base ever since. This apparent geographical and sonic discrepancy is proof that the blues can thrive outside of the Deep South, and even across oceans.
“It shows how universal the blues feeling is; it’s like a magnet,” Denise Duffy, Music Maker’s co-founder, says. “He appreciates American blues in a way that most Americans don’t.”
Benjamin was already a dedicated blues fan at 14, when he got his first guitar for the sole purpose of learning to play blues music. Leadbelly and Son House records were easy enough to come by in Paris in the ’60s, but Benjamin was committed to going deeper — digging through record stores, he got his hands on hidden gems. A record by New Orleans singer/guitarist Snooks Eaglin really took hold of Benjamin and exposed him to an artist whose repertoire was amazingly eclectic, spanning blues, R&B, gospel and country.
“I never had a teacher, but I had many teachers,” Benjamin says. “I took things from many people and gave things to people.” In the Paris of the 1960s, Benjamin says, there were “picnics” — people gathered in the parks and in the streets, guitars slung over their backs, playing for change. Benjamin describes a bohemian haven of song swapping, snacking, and strolling down cobblestone streets. His curious nature led him to soak up all the sounds and characters around him, building his repertoire and his understanding of the music he was so drawn to. He didn’t understand every word that he sang, and so he enlisted American friends to help not only with translating lyrics but also with understanding the weight of the words.
Those American friends came to include Tim and Denise Duffy, and many of Music Maker’s first partner artists. Tim, Guitar Gabriel, and Macavine Hayes crossed paths with Benjamin at the Blues Bash in Charleston, South Carolina, in the early ’90s, and they all became fast friends. In those early days of Music Maker, Benjamin helped to plant the seeds of our European audience.
“He led us into this insular world of small clubs where French guys were playing and making a living,” Tim says. “He drove us around, got us there. I doubt he made a dime. Everything is beautiful when you spend time with Benjamin.”