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Dee Dee Bridgewater Discovers Her 'Red Earth'

Dee Dee Bridgewater has spent much of her long career ensconced in the history of jazz. She has an album of jazz standards and another honoring legendary singer Ella Fitzgerald.

For her new album, though, Bridgewater explored her own roots.

The Tennessee-born Bridgewater began her latest project exploring the African side of her family tree. But 150 years of family history turned up nothing.

About that time, Bridgewater began listening to the music of West Africa and feeling strangely drawn to the sounds of Mali. She traveled to the country in 2004 to investigate.

Before her journey, though, she says she was skeptical.

"I had grown up with very, very negative impressions of Africa," Bridgewater said. "In schoolbooks that would talk about Africa, it was always about savages."

During her travels in Mali, she discovered the continent's deep cultural roots and a complex musical heritage by sitting in with musicians from the area. The end result is her new album of collaborations with Malian musicians, Red Earth: A Malian Journey.

In Africa, Bridgewater visited clubs to hear local musicians and felt an insatiable urge to join them on stage — something she says she never does. "It was the music in general. It just seemed familiar, like I knew it."

Bridgewater adapted an old African griot song "Red Earth (Massane Cisse)," the album's title track, to her own experience growing up in Memphis, Tenn.

"I've always had a fascination for red earth," she said. "I love red earth."

As a baby, Bridgewater says, she would take off her clothes and roll around in the Tennessee red earth. So at first sight of Mali's red earth, she told her husband she knew in her heart she was home.

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As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.