Monday, September 15, 2008

In Review--West African Kora Meets...

photos: from Rock Paper Scissors

Jayme Stone and Mansa Sissoko
Africa to Appalachia

Independent Release Canada


Seckou Keita SKQ

TheSilimbo Passage

World Artventures UK


Like some of you that visit this blog, I am also a huge fan of West African griot music and especially the West African harp, the kora. I am also keen on cultural exchange between West African countries and folk music of North America (blues, Appalachian, traditional folk). Not long ago I read an article on World Music Central regarding the banjo and its ancestor, the West African n'goni. I was fascinated with the article and through synchronicity, I would encounter Jayme Stone and Mansa Sissoko's exploration of the ordinary banjo--not so ordinary at all.

While the banjo has been a staple of bluegrass, folk and other types of North American musical genres, it has also suffered a bad reputation as an instrument that can't seem to stay in tune and in some corners it might just seem rather outdated or nerdy. Even Ruth Moody, (Wailin' Jennys) made a joke recently in concert about her choice of instruments (banjo and accordion), and how she took those up to annoy her bandmates. Next she laughed, "I'll take up bagpipes."

So another bit of synchronicity, the producer of the fabulous Wailin' Jennys, David Travers-Smith also can be listed as a key player in this remarkable journey of the banjo--and we are not talking Duelin' Banjos. So the story goes, Jayme Stone (a banjo player) meets the kora player Mansa Sissoko and they sense musical kismet. Stone went to West African to immerse himself in the griot tradition, and to learn the history of the banjo--"I became particularly about what kind of music did not make it across the ocean..."

Meanwhile, Sissoko relocated his family to Quebec. So through a connection of Bamako to Quebec and Ontario, this album, of "banjo" music, Africa to Appalachia manifested. The shimmering kora tones, soaring griot vocals and the ngoni feel right at home with the North American banjo. And since each song tells a story of one kind or another, listeners can feel immersed also in the griot tradition or where the crossroads between African-American folk meets with West African traditional music. (Oh, and I need to mention that Stone is a white Canadian bluegrass musician).

Each seamless song proves that music is indeed universal. The musicianship rises above the occasion and Travers-Smith produces yet another sharp album that is going to turn a lot of heads. This project fits under exquisite music and cultural exchange. I also think you cannot go wrong with kora since it does uplift the spirit. Although this is a modern production, it feels ancient, primal and healing.

So now let's hop over to the United Kingdom where Senegalese kora player Seckou Keita collaborates with an Egyptian violinist, an Italian double bassist and his West African relatives on the CD, The Silimbo Passage. There is no getting away from the West African griot sound even if this group explores music outside the "Afro-Mandinka" kingdom such as European jazz, classical and soul music as mentioned on the CD cover.

The opening track, Bimo features a gorgeous duet with Keita and his sister Binta Suso. Samy Bishai's violin snakes along and we can also hear Kieta's cousin, Surahata Susso hammering away on those calabashes. This intriguing track whets the appetite and sends listeners' ears on a sonic adventure.

Mande Arab has both a European classical and Arab-Andalusian feel to it. Suso shows off her vocal range and talent in a remarkable fashion as her brother's kora shimmers delicately in the background and a lonely violin conjures images of camels traveling across a vast desert. The gossamer Chelima features a beautiful dance between violin, bass and kora. And each of the album's songs comes off as polished musical gems, carefully crafted and sustained by cultural exchange and a passion for exotic music.

These are CDs that I will keep around to listen to when the world feels too dark. I find this music uplifting and I promise myself to get a healthy dose of it now and in the future. I will also listen to the CDs when I already feel good.

To learn more you can visit, rock paper scissors, seckoukeita.com

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