Blues Fest 2006: “K” Is for “Cannibal” -- James “Super Chikan” Johnson, Saturday, 4 p.m., Bandshell Print
Music - Feature Stories
Tuesday, 27 June 2006 22:56

James "Super Chikan" Johnson James "Super Chikan" Johnson is not your typical blues musician, or really your typical anything.

He's a left-handed guitarist who taught himself to play on a right-handed guitar. He makes instruments out of gas cans and ceiling fans. And he communicates with chickens.

As he said in a recent phone interview: "I used to have a rooster get up on my window every morning and crow, and he would say, ‘Mr. Johnsooooon. Mr. Johnsooon. Get up! Get up and feed me, get up and feed me.' And I'd get up, and I'd go out and feed him."

As a child, Super Chikan learned their language.

"The chickens would talk, and I thought I was understandin' what they were saying because they made noises that sounded like what we were saying, and I would repeat the chickens."

This quickly earned James Johnson the nickname "Chicken Boy." As a teenager this became "Fast Chicken," he said, then "Super Fast Chicken," and finally the name that has stuck for the past 30 years: "Super Chikan."

As for the spelling change, the Mississippi-born musician explained: "Whenever I sat down to eat chicken, they said, ‘Oh no, a chicken eating chicken,' so I spell it C-H-I-K-A-N. I tell them the ‘K' is for ‘cannibal.'"

The self-taught guitarist even incorporates the chickens into his music. "When I'm playin' and singin'," he said, "I'll sing a verse like a chicken, or I'll make my guitar cackle like one or something."

These imitations appear on his three albums: Blues Come Home to Roost (1999), What You See (2000), and Shoot That Thang (2001). His unique style has earned him a number of awards, including the 2004 Mississippi Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts and five Living Blues Critics' Awards.

But this recognition stems from more than his fascination with chickens. Super Chikan's original sound also comes from the guitars he makes from flattened gas cans.

"I call them the ‘chikantar,' like Chikan made a guitar out of a gas can, so we call it a ‘chikantar.'"

Super Chikan doesn't stop there. He can make an instrument out of just about anything. Cigar boxes become "cigarkantars." He can even transform a ceiling fan into a "guijo."

"It looks like a banjo with a guitar neck sticking out of it, so I call it a ‘guijo' - a guitar and a banjo together. My own creation and my own spelling."

Super Chikan has been building his instruments from the beginning. The first was a diddley-bo, made from a wire strung on a stick.

Even after he bought a $10 guitar with two strings, he kept making instruments. "Anything I can get my hands on that's light enough to hold as a guitar, I make a guitar out of it," he said.

Super Chikan also paints his chikantars. "When I made my first gas-can guitar, it was so ugly, all scratched up, and army green. Somebody said, ‘You need to paint that thing,' and I didn't want just regular old painting so I started doing artwork on it and it went from there. ... I went from painting on cans to painting on canvas and everything else now."

And for somewhere between $1,000 and $3,000, depending on whether it's acoustic or electric and the amount of painting that's on it, you can buy one of these painted chikantars - sometimes right off the stage if the money's right, Johnson said.

Super Chikan has also developed his own approach to playing, one that is influenced by more than just playing right-handed guitars with his left hand. "All these other guys can hold all these fancy, pretty chords, and my fingers is all beat up from working and chopping wood and picking cotton and what have you. I can't just coil 'em around like spaghetti, so I created my own chords and make my own notes. As far as I'm concerned, music is music, and if it sounds good to me, to me it's music."

Super Chikan has taken his music around the world, playing the blues in Africa, Russia, Switzerland, and, most recently, Italy. On the way, he has picked up some advice for his fellow blues musicians.

"I discovered that there's other people out there with blues so bad they can't even play it," he said. "We're not the only ones with the blues. We're just the only ones singing about it. I think everybody in the world's got the blues in some kind of way about something."