Ariana Dumpis is not your typical vintage blues deejay. Call it stereotyping, but I find that most blues fans enthusiastic enough to host a radio show tend to be middle-aged men. Not only that, but most of them seem to have spent their lives voraciously amassing facts on the whos, the whats, and the wheres of the blues to the point that they don’t think much about other styles. How surprising, then, to tune in to Bring It on Home on a Saturday afternoon and hear, between long sets of blues and related musical traditions, a voice you’d normally associate with, say, indie rock.
A cheerful UCSB senior who doesn’t look the least bit like a blues scholar, Dumpis has been spinning her particular mixture of classic Americana on KCSB since the summer of 2008. Her two-and-a-half-hour show, though predominantly about blues, regularly visits other nearby destinations on the map of midcentury United States music. When I sat in with her, she gave me a survey of her sonic territory: “I’ll play modern stuff that sounds retro, like it could be from back in the day. I’ll play ’60s Chicago blues. I’ll go earlier and play some boogie-woogie. I’ll go to the Chess records era, with Little Walter and Muddy Waters. My soul and R&B is from the ’50s and ’60s. The rock I play could even be from today.”
Despite her departure from the dominant blues-maven profile and her willingness to venture outside the domain of pure blues, her program has made fans even among members of the Santa Barbara Blues Society. Breaking her playlists into half-hour sets by genre—between two blues sets might come, say, an R&B set and a rock set —she speaks only briefly between them. Launching into her announcements with rapid speech that only slows down after a dozen words or so, she fires off song titles and artist names with the efficiency of a deejay eager to get in, get out, and let the music do the talking. “When I listen to the radio,” she told me, “I don’t want to hear talking. I want to hear the music. That’s the way I want to communicate with my listeners.”
But when the music talks, what does it say? “It’s hard to put words to it,” she admitted. “There’s just something about the way things sound. You can hear so much emotion in someone’s voice. I don’t pick up on the words, sometimes. It’s just the way the words sound. And the guitar—there’s so much emotion in it, too. The R&B is just fun to listen to, but with blues, there’s emotion you can feel.”
Dumpis first tapped into this current of emotion in the car, when her dad put on a song from Texas bluesman Blind Willie Johnson. “I thought, ‘Oh, I kind of like this!’” she remembers. “After I came here to KCSB, I got much more into the blues. Now my dad brings gives me his recommendations and brings me vinyl.” Given Santa Barbara’s lack of well-stocked music store blues shelves, she’s had to exploit every other available resource to the fullest to build her knowledge of blues players, and artists in related traditions. “That’s one tough thing about this genre,” she said. “There’s no Howlin’ Wolf or Bessie Smith in KCSB’s music library. I’m not interested in the new blues stuff coming out now, so I have to look in other places.”
Besides following recommendations from family and friends, Dumpis has developed other techniques to discover new old music. “I look to see who’s put out complete collections,” she said. “Martin Scorsese puts out these big blues compilations, which I use as a way to get to know different artists. I look on the Internet to find who my favorite artists played with, and who else is from that time period. I learned about Little Walter and Willie Dixon from the film Cadillac Records. People calling in requests can give you ideas. One caller told me about throat singing, which a Leadbelly song I played reminded him of.” And having grown up in the Bay Area, she makes sure to visit the always bountiful San Francisco branch of Amoeba Music.
For all the emotion she finds in this music, it’s not just an aesthetic interest for her; it’s also an intellectual one. “I like old music,” she said. “I think it’s important to know about the past and understand how it can affect us.” In high school, she found her way to Muddy Waters by way of a report on the Rolling Stones, the writing of which took her back to the band’s American influences. As a history major at UCSB, she’s managed to write a paper on the existentialism to be found in Otis Redding’s “The Dock of the Bay” and a world history paper comparing early slave music in the U.S. and Brazil. She’s been considering writing a senior thesis on the roots of the blues, but has lingering reservations: “I’ve begun to realize that there aren’t a lot of primary sources around anymore.”
Despite all this, you wouldn’t be totally off base to assume from Dumpis’s appearance and demeanor that she’s into indie rock. In fact, that’s exactly what she played when she first came to KCSB. “But then I thought, so many people do indie rock shows,” she remembered. “I wanted to do something different.” Though its core may be blues, Bring It on Home nevertheless resides in the “eclectic” section of KCSB’s schedule, just barely. A stint as KCSB’s program director and time spent on the station’s program review committee showed her just how hard it is to pull off good eclecticism: “Sometimes they just sound like an iPod on shuffle. But when eclectic shows are done well, they’re great.”
Currently facing the question of what to do with her post-collegiate life, she plans to figure out a way to keep her musical interests involved. Regardless of the growth and excitement she’s had at KCSB, she doesn’t think she’ll pursue her musical muse by staying in radio. “After being on noncommercial radio,” she said, “I know I couldn’t play what someone else tells me to.”
Bring it on Home airs Saturdays from 3 to 4:30 p.m. on KCSB, 91.9 FM.