Dinner‘s done, the dishes are in the sink. It’s been a long day, and you decide to load up the CD player, hit ”shuffle“ and relax into your overstuffed couch. From the plethora of recent platters featuring the West African kora — a 21-string harp-lute hybrid — you select a stack and plop them into the carousel, then crack open Thomas Hale‘s timely Griots and Griottes: Masters of Words and Music (Indiana University Press).
Before long, the sound of high-speed, micromelodic arpeggios tussling with gentle-breeze strumming wafts all the way from Le Palais de Congres in Bamako, Mali, to your trusty Infinitys. Toumani Diabate and Ballake Sissoko’s New Ancient Strings (HannibalRykodisc) reprises the first album of instrumental kora music ever recorded, Ancient Strings, tracked by their fathers, Sidiki and Jelimadi, in 1970. The original release was as much a symbol of Malian national pride as it was a groundbreaking album. The two sons carry their dads‘ mantles with aplomb on ”Kadiatou,“ based on a venerable piece from the griot oral songbook. It begins at a stately pace before galloping off, digits blurring and nylon-monofilament strings fluttering.
The tribute isn’t a rehash, nor does it shun the past. Hale notes that a griot‘s repertoire has links with a long family tradition, as well as with the heritage of his particular instrument, and the younger Diabate has expanded both the kora’s repertoire and its future legacy. His fast-fingered filigrees have been setting new standards for the bulbous instrument since 1987, when he released Kaira, the first pure solo-kora album. Toumani is not the first boundary-pusher on the kora. Gambian-born Chicago resident Foday Musa Suso, who says he‘s a descendant of the first kora player, has blended griot grooves with dance pop, jazz and orchestral ”new music“ since the late ’70s. But the ‘90s have belonged to Toumani, whether he’s crossing over the Strait of Gibraltar with Spanish nuevo flamenco masters Ketama on the two Songhai discs, making whoopee with Bulgarians and Japanese, contributing to countryman Salif Keita‘s globopop forays, or hitting the stage with his own group, the Symmetric Orchestra. Toumani’s most recent contribution to Salif‘s work arrives on the changer with ”Tomorrow (Sadio)“ from Papa (Metro Blue), the albino nobleman’s latest outing. After a round of cloud-splitting vocals, Toumani fires off a trademark string of 64th notes that fall like long-overdue rain on a parched Sahelian plain.
The next disc shuffles into position, and the unmistakable growl of Taj Mahal kicks in on ”Ol‘ Georgie Buck,“ a banjo tune he learned from Elizabeth Cotton. He, Toumani and six more crack Malian musicians probed the Motherland-diaspora connection during a recording week in Athens, Georgia. Out of their natural-born explorations came the revelatory Kulanjan (HannibalRykodisc) and a slot on the recent Africa Fete tour. As Taj yowls, ”Georgie Buck is deadand the last words he saidsaid he didn’t want no shortenin‘ in his bread,“ two musical breezes blow in off the savanna and help the tune to rise. Seems the kora, here played in a funky, millet-pounding rhythm by Ballake, had never before been recorded with the kamalengoni, a hunter’s harp from the Wassoulou area of Mali, handled in these sessions by Dougouye Koulibaly. Anyone within earshot of the Kulanjan ensemble when they stretched out on this double-shot Malian blues at California Plaza in late August didn‘t need an ethnomusicologist to explain what Taj called ”the connection between the music here and the music there.“
Just as you read Hale’s explanation of how ”the relationship between words and instrumental music is extremely close,“ how ”the two forms of music are a inseparable,“ Kandia Kouyate‘s immense contralto clear-cuts your cochlea on ”Folilalou.“ Surprisingly, Kita Kan (Stern’s Africa) is the griotte‘s first solo CD. She is Mali’s main mama; such is the level of her patrons‘ admiration that they have bought her planes, cars and other big-ticket consumables. On this cut, Ballake’s rippling strings ride astride balafon (the hardwood-keyed native vibraphone that‘s even older than the kora), ngoni lute and guitar, as Kandia and Guinean guest vocalist Sekouba Bambino trade phrases to see who can crack the windows first.
While you clean up the shards, a curious Moorish minor-key mysterioso pours out of the still-panting speakers. It’s kora all right, but tuned sort of like an oud and backed by hand percussion with a thump more darbouka than djembe. ”Senegal-Mauritania“ may not typify the rest of Kaouding Cissoko‘s soundscape on Kora Revolution (Palm Pictures), or his work in Baaba Maal’s Dande Lenol band. But it does show the Senegalese koraist‘s eagerness to mine the musical veins of his neighbors in the Griot Zone, as well as escort his instrument into new terrain, as he has done with the Afro-Celt Sound System, and with the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
Hale notes, ”Griots who adopt technology, whether old or new, are simply doing what they have done for centuries — adapting in order to deal with the enormous changes wrought by colonialism, nationalism and postcolonialism and to reach new audiences.“ Vive l’adaptation!