America meets Africa again – but this time America’s a lot more assertive. I can’t think of an easier way into world music.
Label: Twelve Eight Records
Time: 11 tracks / 52 mins
Over the years, I have reviewed a few albums that entwine African and American music, starting with banjo player Jayme Stone’s wonderful Africa to Appalachia, one of my albums of the year back in 2008 (its final track coincidentally called “Kaira Ba,” which means ‘peace and love’).
He was exploring the roots of his instrument in Africa and interweaved runs with kora player Mansa Sissoko.
This Cissokho is also a kora player, but this is world music with an even broader outlook. He now lives in North Carolina and has blended elements of American genres with his own Senegalese and Malian background. Background sounds from both continents make discreet appearances, too.
He begins with a delicate, rhythmic piece that resembles many Malian tracks that have come out over recent years (and not without reason: it is one of the most widely-played pieces in the kora repertoire). But after a while, we get a guitar solo amping up the intensity, along with strong percussion.
Then he starts his run of bigger surprises: third song "Salsa Xalel" is, yes, a salsa (it’s big in Senegal, which shows, as it sounds authentic and effective here). Second track “Badima” shares similar tendencies and includes an organ solo over the African rhythms. Then in “Saya,” guest Eric Heywood adds some beautifully integrated pedal steel playing.
And so it continues. “Xarit” includes a brass section; “Ndoli” (a kids’ song, but you’d never guess) and “Story Song” slip in some mandolin; the latter starts with Tinariwen-like guitar as a Malian desert blues, but then it grows to incorporate organ and Cissokho’s improvised spoken vocals. These, and the singing in the highly melodic “Ma Chérie,” are in English (and in one of these verses, singer Shana Tucker, makes the only brief misstep of the disc, where the tune – probably improvised for this bit – sounds awkward).
Generally, you really don’t need to know the words, as each song seems to have its own hook or special feature. For example, “Baayi Leen” has a wonderfully addictive vocal hook that stays to the end. It might appeal anywhere on the planet.
Cissokho later reverts to more traditional kora music, but is never afraid to expand the overall sound, and these unexpected blends of genre feel so natural.
Following the Griot tradition from Mali, where music teaches values, Cissokho sings of his family making peace; asks what kind of world we are leaving for our children; offers a love song, a funeral song, a paean to friendship and a warning against judging people.
This terrific album was seven years in the making and it shows. It is beautifully thought out, and the playing and singing are superb. I can’t think of an easier way into world music.