The Blues Is a Universal Feeling
inArtist Storyon April 13, 2021
By Gabi Mendick
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 deeper 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. As Denise Duffy, Music Maker’s co-founder, puts it, “It shows how universal the blues feeling is, it’s like a magnet. 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. Lead Belly 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.
But how exactly did a teenager in Paris go from being a hard-core fan to actually learning to play the blues? And before the internet at that?
“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 necessarily 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. Tim recalls, “He led us into this insular world of small clubs where French guys were playing and making a living. He drove us around, got us there, I doubt he made a dime. He gave us a taste of Europe and we’ve been touring Europe basically every year since.”
The real treat was simply getting to be around Benjamin, experiencing his point of view and his lifestyle. “He takes in the moment greater than most people do, and when you’re with him, you do too,” Tim says. He describes visiting Benjamin on his first trip to France with Guitar Gabriel: “It was like meeting Jack Kerouac and his friends. There were giant champagne bottles that they had for years, and they popped them open because Gabe was there. Everything was a celebration.”
A lot has changed since then. European countries don’t have quite the budgets they once did for the arts, blues music isn’t as mainstream, and a totally different type of one-man ‘band’ has taken over. “Everything is DJs now,” Benjamin says. But Tim and Denise reassure me that Benjamin is just as free-spirited, laid back, unflappable, and lovable as ever, and we are so lucky he remains part of the Music Maker family. Says Tim: “Everything is beautiful when you spend time with Benjamin.”