I went browsing last week on my favourite world music shop, sternsmusic.com, to see what I might have missed out on since my last visit (children can put months between the things we used to do on a daily basis – happily!). I noticed that I haad missed out on an album that was in fact released two years ago. If you’re a fan of the late Ali Farka Toure, or just love the blues of John Lee Hooker, then come back to the place that Ethnomusicologist Gerhard Kubik cited as the birthplace of Blues. The video on the right is taken from the Boubacar’s album Mali Denhou. Relaxing 🙂Tweet
The latest album to arrive with me is one of those gems that I find myself driven to writing about and sharing with all the readers of this blog. Fatoumata is (at the time of writing) a 30 year rising star of world music. Her singing is a mix of Malian grooves, some more reminiscent of the earlier tracks on Rokia Troure’s difficult to find album release “Mouneissa”. Other tracks give a sense of New Mali, as exported by current artists such as Vieux Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate, with energetic grooves (check Sowa and Bakonoba (the video is featured on this page). Which label managed to capture this rising star and do a fantastic job getting it down onto recorded media for us all? World Circuit of course, protecting and storing the cultural heritage of modern world music. You can find the album “Fatou” online through Amazon, or other world music specialists.
I’ve just bought an album that has to go down as one of the most spectacular of the year, and it’s been carried off by two of my favourite artists: Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate. But you’re probably asking the question, how can Ali return from the grave to record an album? Well, this was his very last, recorded while he was suffering in his final days. For those familiar with these two virtuoso’s prior collaboration, In the Heart of the Moon which was released in 2004, this final recording session was made the following year, but clearly the release has been held back for an opportune moment.
I’m not sure quite how to express the impact that these two artists have had on my musical awakening. Toumani with the Kora, and Ali Farka Toure with his guitar. I think the fact that I do not understand the language being sung (on Ali’s other albums) creates a further distance between me and the artist. I’ve always been an instrumentalist, liking moods and passages creates by sounds and noise over lyrics trying to tell me a story.
The two albums are subtly different. With the former Toumani’s playing features much more strongly, the Kora has more attitude and takes a greater centre stage. It was Toumani’s first major performance on the international stage and Ali gave the protege the chance to shine. Since that first release Toumani has gone on to produce a further 3 albums and has appeared on numerous collaborative projects.
In ‘Ali and Tomani’ they are one. Even if just 12 months seperate the recording there is a perfect harmony and balance between the instruments. The Kora is less aggressive and blends seamlessly with Ali’s playing. For me, track of the album has to be “Soumbou Ya Ya”. It’s just pure Ali and Toumani sharing the love of their instruments. Not since Ali teamed up with Ry Cooder (‘Talking Timbuktu’) has there been such competiting collaboration.
Rest in peace Ali, you went out on the highest plateau.
If something sounds familiar about Afel Bocoum’s sound, you only have to look at who tutored him for clues. A member of Ali Farka Touré’s “ASCO” group from the age of 13, provides all the evidence one would need to pin the artist to the groove, but he’s grown beyond that and gone on to become a star in his own right.
Afel’s first album, Alkibar, was released ten years ago and it remains one of my favourite of all time. He describes his playing style as “Arabo-Muslim…in the Great River tradition” and this was certainly a sentiment captured on first album which meandered through the daily activities of life on the Niger river.
In the ten year period since the first release, Afel has collaborated on a number of music projects, most notably Ali Farka Touré’s last album, Savanne.
In Tabital Pulaaku, Afel takes us on a much broader musical journey. He still remains firmly within the African blues genre, but listeners of Tinariwen, Ba Cissoko and Viex Farka Touré are going to enjoy this album, as it’s much more accessible to the new African blues converts, when seen alongside the earlier work.
Melodies and harmonies across the instruments are much more defined in Tabital Pulaaku, and the album transmits a warm energy and timelessness that is, for me, a fundamental component of a successful African blues album.
One of the best tracks on the album is not surprisingly the title track, Tapital Pulaaku. In this we hear Afel’s distinctive voice pushed front stage, and then around the one and a half minute mark, a shift in tempo that reveals a head-bobbing groove, delivering all the expression and relief that African music provides to its fans.
This is an album to be savoured and enjoyed like a fine wine.
I’m going to begin with a dedication to the Gambian artist responsible for introducing me to the Kora, his name, Basiru Suso. His album, ‘Suso Kunda’, was for me an epic journey, it shares a timelessness in the same way that Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos do. I don’t think the album was ever commercially released, save for those few copies on display in London’s Leicester Square, but I’m sure he’d be only to happy to answer any enquiries you might have about his music. Basiru’s music is very much free from additives, you get the Kora, and perhaps a plucked bass as backing, and that’s about it, which is just what Kora diehards tend to enjoy the most.
To arrive at Basiru or the more traditional forms of Kora playing, you’ll first need a gentle introduction or you might get scared off. There are usually musical bridges that one comes across moving from one musical style to another.
For example, I arrived at the Kora via this route,
70s Funk -> House Music -> Drum and Bass -> Reggae -> Dub -> African Blues -> Kora
Because everyone’s music history is different, to try and propose an exact starting point is always going to be difficult. So I’ll review the albums here, I think act best as musical bridges, and hope that you identify one that matches your own personal music history.
Ali Farka Touré & Tomani Diabaté – ‘In the Heart of the Moon’
As I type out the name of this album I smile. Ali was the original African bluesman and Toumani shows he can work the Kora like no other. In the Hotel Mande, overlooking the Niger River these two legends came together and recorded one of the singularly most inspired recordings in music history. It’s just pure talent improvising, enjoying and sharing a fusion of guitar and Kora, like no other. It’s 12 tracks of sublime relaxation, reflection and positivity. You buy this CD because if you’re the type of person that likes to be sent on a journey when listening to music, and it’s because of that, that you have a great music system for hearing it. The recording does not disappoint.
I don’t know if I can actually beat that opener but I’m going to try…
Toumani Diabaté’s Symmetric Orchestra
The year following the release of ‘In the Heart of the Moon’, Toumani stepped up to the stage with his Symmetric Orchestra to show that, apart from being able to sound mellow, the Kora could also rock just as hard the discotheque. The album is a fusion of funk, and other urban rhythms born out of 10 years of Friday night jam sessions in Bamako’s Hogon Club. It’s what makes the album a much more upbeat and energized affaire then the calming ‘In the Heart of the Moon’. Toumani shares with us songs that cover a complete range of styles, from the slower, ‘Mali Sadio’, which tells the story of a Hippopotamus that drinks from a lake, through to knee bouncing grooves, sweeping backing vocals, and Toumani’s electric Kora playing (as heard on the track, ‘Single’).
Ba Cissoko – Electric Griot Land
What happens when you plug the Kora into guitar effects boxes? The answer lies with Ba Cissoko, who’ve done just this. This album makes the use of background sounds, and other forms of artificial noise to add great depth and better imagery to their music. The group also performed as support act for Femi Kuti, so their skills are noted at the highest levels. I’m recommending the earlier of their two albums as this is the stronger of the two offerings.
When you take a track like ‘Silani’, on which K’Naan also collaborated, you’ve got to ask why such an album and such talent can’t get high profile on the international stage.
3Ma – Rajery, Ballake Sissoko and Driss El Maloumi
A collaboration between a Madagascan, Malian, and Moroccan provides the cultural context for this cross-border collaboration which that brings together this trio of musicians each armed with their country’s national instrument. Driss brings the Arab lute, Rajery the Valiha (a bamboo tubular zither) and our friend Ballake, the jaw dropping Kora. It’s around the four minute mark of the opening track, ‘Anfass’, that you hear the first fruits born of this beautiful fusion of cultures played out by these very gifted musicians.
Rokia Traoré – Tchamantché
As we are building a list of ‘bridging albums’, I’m including an artist in the list that does not actually play the Kora. However, the Kora features so poignantly on her latest album, that I’m including it as it will no doubt encourage listeners of classical and jazz to be brought closer to the Kora. The twist of the Kora in this album is in its combination with Rokia’s voice – always one to bring a cold chill and edginess to her performance that will send shivers down your spine. If you liked Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew back in the 1960s, you’re going to like this one too.
So that ends our introduction to the Kora. I urge you to pick one of the albums above, take a small financial risk and dive in, this is a music you need to hear.
If you’d like to comment on any of the albums featured in this post, please leave your thoughts below for others in the TT community. Remember you can also subscribe to updates of the Tolerant Traveler using Twitter, RSS or the newsletter, meaning you’ll know as soon as a new post is published.
I discovered the Kora 8 years ago while walking through London’s busy Leicester Square. As I was drawn towards the sound, I expected to find a group of musicians playing, instead I discovered just one musician with a Kora in his hands. Hearing it that day stopped me dead in my tracks, and since then I’ve never looked back.
Moving forward a few years and it was the collaboration between one of Africa’s greatest bluesman, Ali Farka Toure (now deceased), and the explosive talents of a certain Toumani Diabate, that brought to the international stage an instrument that’s been a staple in traditional West African music for centuries.
Read on and be awestruck, because here comes the mighty Kora!
What is the Kora?
The Kora (spelt Cora in French) has 21 heavenly strings and its sound is most closely aligned with the harp, an instrument that has its origins in Egypt, the same continent as the Kora’s birthplace. Principally it’s played in the countries of Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso and The Gambia, where artists including Mamadou Diabate, Ba Cissoko, Baba Sissoko, Mory Kanté, Issa Bagayogo, Alhaji Bai Konté, and Tata Dindin Jobarté, bring this instrument to life.
And what a life it has.
Musically the Kora has a range of three octaves and its defining beauty is its ability to operate on many different levels. It can play high, middle, and low notes just like many others, but the Kora can allow a gifted musician to play across all 3 octaves simultaneously. This short video, featuring Toumani Diabate, offers a great example of what I mean.
This is the most amazing instrument, and in the next post we’ll reveal the best albums to introduce you it’s magic.
Have you been spellbound by this instrument too? Please share your experiences with the rest of the TT community below.