Introducing the Kora’s top 5 albums

Following our earlier post on the Kora,  let’s now open ourselves up to its fabulous World. [If you’re on the posts page, you can start YouTube video on the right for some Kora background music.]

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.

heartofthemoonAli 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…

boulevardindependenceToumani 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’).

bacissokoBa 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.

3ma3Ma – 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.

tchamantcheRokia 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.

Kora – just sit back and be amazed

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!

The 21 stringed Kora instrumentWhat 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.

Additional resources
Cora Connection

Wikipedia entry

Feelin’ good with Putumayo

Putumayo PresentsRunning from Colombia through to the the Amazon river in Brazil while skirting the borders of both Ecuador and Peru, can be found the Putumayo river. It was the rivers natural beauty that caused Dan Storper to give his handcrafts shop, and then in 1993, the World music label imprint it’s name, Putumayo World Music. The music label’s motto, “guaranteed to make you feel good” started weakly with both Italian and French Cafe compilations, however the latest realease, “Brazilian Cafe” delivers some really upbeat feeling’ good music.  This is a samba, bossa nova and jazzy grooved compilation, in an Antonio Carlos Jobin style (if that name is also a mystery to you, for goodness sake subscribe via RSS or Twitter now, for musical revalations in the coming months), featuring songs that will pour effortlessly from your stereo.

In this happy and care free vain both ‘outro logar’, by Toco, and ‘Quando O Carnaval Chegar’, by Marcia Salomon come through as the strongest performances on the album.

If you’re looking for a good all-round compilation that covers a good range of songs of what Brazil does best, this album is one of the stronger ones available at the moment, and it’s why its been in the top 10 albums on the Billboard World music chart since being released.

For more information you can check it out here.

Baaba Maal’s Television – tuned in?

televisionIf you’re reading this post asking yourself who’s Baaba Maal, this is going to be one of your best days in a long time, because we’re about to open your world to an artist that has been dazzling audiences in Senegal for more than 20 years. His latest release, ‘Television‘, is his 11th album in this distinguished career.

Baaba Maal was born in the town of Podor, in the Nigerian region of Senegal. He sings in Pulaar, the language of the Fila ethnic group that, as well as Senegal, can also be found in Benin, Guinea, Niger and Somalia. While the Cora is the traditional instrument for musicians of West Africa (most recently elaborated by the gifted Toumana Diabate), Baaba Maal broke whit tradition and took up playing the guitar.

In part his education at the Beaux Arts in Paris has been responsible for exposing Baaba Maal to Western music and composition, but its also because he is a phenomenally gifted musician that has always sought collaborations and ideas to cross-pollinate his music – after returning from Paris Baaba Maal studied with Mansour Seck, who exposed him to traditional composition, while his 1994 release ‘Firin in Fouta’ brought together ragga, salsa and the Breton harp!

To his latest album now, and if it weren’t Baaba Maal’s unmistakable voice, you’d have great difficulty placing the title track ‘Television’ anywhere at all in Africa because it’s so devoid of African instrumentation. In fact, a consistent theme in this album is its lack of traditional instrumentation. However, due to Baaba Maal’s musical heritage and experience he pulls this off in an amazing way.

This album is an expression of what the music of Senegal could sound like if there was more focus on electronic, instead of traditional instruments. Those seeking the comfort of more traditional sounds will find it in “Tino Quando”, the last track on the album that features a beautiful and simple guitar melody and vocals from Baaba Maal accompanied by backing singers in Italian.

Expect to see a few DJ’s remixing this album as it’s ripe for it.

For more information and purchase options, click here.

Rebetiko – Greece’s urban sound

imambaildiImam Baildi, literally the Imam Fainted, is a dish traditionally prepared with aubergines, and involves cooking it over a flame until it can take no more!. It’s the name that both Orestis Falireas and Lysandrop Falireas have given to a music project that sees Greece’s urban music genre Rebetiko, catapulted into the 21st century. They’ve done to Rebetiko what Gotan Project’s did to Argentinian Tango, and in the process evolved the genre as we know it.

Tracks such as ‘De Thelo Pia Na Xanarthis’ leap out, starting with Cuban All Stars style of introduction, before kicking in with a funky beat and spidery guitar. A couple of tracks could probably have been dropped from the album to make it as awe inspiring as some of stronger performances the CD contains. A positive effect of this CD will be to expose audiences to a tucked away genre in Greece’s music history, and it’s certainly had that effect on me, I want to learn more about Rebetiko, thanks guys.

This album is currently only available for purchase in Europe or in specialist stores in the US.

African Blues Evolved – Tinariwen

imidiwanTinariwen’s latest album, Imidiwan, follows on the success of groups 2007 release “Aman Iman: Water is Life”. I’ve been following the groups success right from their beginnings. The story behind the music is one of bloodshed, rebellion and suffering, for an excellent write-up see Andy Morgan’s biography on their website.

For us, it’s the music that moves us, and probably one of the strongest tracks on the album for the uninitaited will be “Lulla”, a track which begins disguising its true intentions, with a few scant hand claps and some incidental plucks at a guitar, before unleashing a jaw dropping groove to liberate the soul. “Tenhert” is also very special with its head nodding chords and reflective vocal passages, while “Enseqi Ehad Didagh” will go down well with long time Tinariwen fans as will the slow and meditative melodies of “Chegret”.

While African blues traditionalists may still argue that “Amassakoul” is Tinariwen’s best contribution to the genre, it would be a mistake for them or any other music lover to dismiss “Imidiwan” on the grounds that it is a departure from the groups earlier sound. The new album represents a much more polished and refined offering than their previews relsease.

Tinariwen have found their comfort zone and strike a formidable balance between old and new styles, with the result that Imidiwan represents their strongest offering to date.

This is an African Blues album at its most accessible, and has something for everyone.