Jayme Stone & Mansa Sissoko: Ninka Nanka

The banjo is unfairly tainted in the mind of the general public—who probably know the instrument best from the theme song to The Beverly Hillbillies or perhaps the film Deliverance. But the next time you hear someone shout out "Squeal like a pig" when the banjo starts to play, remind the ruffian that in Africa this instrument has a royal lineage.

Or better yet, point the culprit in the direction of the CD Africa to Appalachia, which is the fruit of banjoist Jayme Stone's time in Mali exploring the historical antecedents of his instrument. The kora is closer to the harp than the banjo, yet the pairing of Stone with Malian kora player Mansa Sissoko is an inspired idea. An arcane and still mostly unwritten history lies hidden behind the instruments assembled here, but their combination creates a fresh sound that is neither African nor Appalachian. The track opens with a free-flowing mood piece, an ethereal marriage of string sounds, but in the final 1½ minutes the tempo picks up into a strange type of holistic hoedown. Then at the very close a flamenco flavor enters, all too briefly, before the performance comes to a sudden halt—leaving this listener for one wanting more.

December 21, 2008 · 0 comments


Toumani Diabaté: Si Naani

The stereotyped view of African music presents it as dominated by drums—you remember the old Hollywood films with the rhythmic throbbing in the background and some old geezer in explorer garb pronouncing: "The natives are restless tonight." I hate to disappoint you, but many of my favorite recordings of African music have no drums on them. In fact, one could make a case that the string tradition is the crowning glory of the continent, and the various traditional cultures present us with countless instruments that remind us, in varying degrees, of our own Western guitars, harps, banjos, lutes and the like.

The kora has a special place in the pantheon of African string instruments, at least based on the hold it exerts over the Western imagination. This 21-string harp has long fascinated outsiders with its prepossessing appearance, the fragile beauty of its music, and its social role as accompaniment to the griots who are the preservers of local tradition and history. Toumani Diabaté is the leading exponent of the kora in the current day, and has been known in the West ever since the release of his Kaira recording in 1988. But Diabaté is more than the preserver of old traditions; he also has focused on bringing the kora into the modern day. He has collaborated with various jazz, pop and blues artists, as well as played a key role on several iconoclastic "world fusion" projects. His 2008 release The Mandé Variations is more traditional in flavor, but even here Diabaté shows off his innovative "Egyptian tuning" of the kora, which gives his playing a more exotic flavor. On this track, he puts his personal stamp on two traditional works—a love song from northwest Mali and a 19th-century griot piece praising Fula warriors from central Mali—and shows that love and war can coexist, at least in the world of musical performance. This moving 10-minute track, and indeed the whole CD, will leave you anything but restless tonight. This release is an important contribution to Diabaté's oeuvre and is one of the most important recordings of traditional African music in recent memory.

December 09, 2008 · 1 comment


Ablaye Cissoko & Volker Goetze: Domain Domain

This magical (and most unlikely!) intersection of cultures produces a surprising result. To be fair, "surprising" may seem like an odd description given the fact that I'd never considered the combination of the West African kora with a trumpet before. With the wide tonal range available on the 21-string kora, Ablaye Cissoko is able to maintain a solid bassline and a series of beautiful and ringing arpeggios over which Volker Goetze weaves his melody. There's also a call-&-response feel here as Goetze drops back for a few short solo passages. Truly mesmerizing stuff.

October 27, 2008 · 0 comments


Taj Mahal (with Toumani Diabaté): Zanzibar

Although blues music has deep African roots, the combination of these two traditions in the recording studio typically presents a stark contrast in musical styles. Here blues Maestro (also the name of this CD) Taj Mahal is joined by Beninese vocalist Angélique Kidjo and Malian kora player Toumani Diabaté, The results take us into unpredictable world music waters where few blues artists dare to swim. The rhythm, which is broken down into two bars of three beats followed by a bar of two beats, is hypnotic, and the intersecting vocal lines are quite effective. You will hear few flatted thirds on this track, and the performance is a departure from what you might expect from Taj Mahal. Those seeking more familiar blues fare will find it elsewhere on the Maestro CD, but this performance is a standout effort.

October 13, 2008 · 0 comments


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