I have been fortunate. I have received many recordings fusing traditional West African music, mainly from Mali, with American blues, jazz and now the swirling sounds of Jewish clarinet. Israeli reedman Oran Etkin (clarinet, bass clarinet & tenor sax), teamed up with Balla Kouyate (balafon), Makane Kouyate (calabash & vocals) and Joe Sanders (bass). An array of guest musicians also bring in cello, violin, guitar, djembe and bass. The end result is Kelenia-- a multicultural jazz stew with a warming effect.
Etkin cites in the liner notes, "The music you hear was not created in a studio--it developed over the course of a decade as I was working with various African musicians in the US and Mali and then through the years of performances and rehearsals with wonderful musicians on this record."
And sure enough this seamless fusion feels completely natural to my ears. The opener, Yekeke bubbles like champagne with its effervescent spirit. A listener could not help but dance to it, or at least wildly tap her feet to the luscious rhythms played on the balafon accompanied by a celebratory clarinet. The next track, Nina slows the pace down creating a wonderful West African chill-out experience. Kelenia features the soulful vocals of Abdoulaye Diabate in conversation with Etkin's clarinet.
Most of the album sports a strong Malian signature with the exception of Brink which sounds like a cross between experimental jazz and Kronos Quartet-tinged chamber music. A re-worked version of Duke Ellington's It Don't Mean a Thing also appears on the recording, but it barely resembles the original swing piece, even if it swings West African style. Etkin alternates between plaintive tenor sax and overarching clarinet.
Overall, Kelenia offers a unique listening experience combining music of Israel, the US and Mali, that took years to distill. Certainly the CD has a warm and inviting quality. And who knows where Malian music will end up next?