Friday, December 01, 2006

Electric Griot Land by Ba Cissoko

No, this is not the West African answer to Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland, despite the title, but a brave attempt to match traditional styles against contemporary Western pop. The Guinean Ba Cissoko is a griot, from a long line of traditional musicians, and a distinguished kora player, like his better-known Malian counterpart, Toumani Diabate. Cissoko starts out in conventional acoustic style, matching his rippling playing on the West African harp against other traditional instruments, from the xylophone-like balafon to calabash percussion. Then he adds in bass guitar, a gentle wash of programming and effects, and the input from a series of African special guests.
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In some parts of Africa you are born into music. Musicians playing in West Africa today share surnames - Diabaté, Kouyaté, Cissoko - with ancestors who have handed down craft and songs to their heirs for centuries. They are the griots: the musical caste. With that history, if you're a Cissoko then you are born to play the kora - the 21-stringed instrument that is a cross between a harp and a guitar and which has the sweetest, most hypnotising sound.

Ba Cissoko, however, is a maverick. Not satisfied with traditional griot ballads, he has put together a band, invited the hippest African musicians as his guests into the studio, and with his cousin, kora player Sekou Kouyaté, plugged koras into wah-wah pedals, backed them with driving beats and thick, throbbing bass and created an exciting, compelling sound.
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With its 21 strings, the long West African instrument called the kora delivers a sound rich in nuance and finesse. It also requires lengthy study. Together these factors have made it a vehicle for the preservation of traditional music by griots -- the praise-singing troubadours of Mali and Guinea -- rather than innovation and fusion with modern genres.

Then Ba Cissoko came along, with the band that bears his name. The Guinean combo, which visits the Somerville Theatre tonight on its maiden US tour, has jolted tradition by matching Cissoko's conventional kora with an electric version invented and played by his cousin Sékou Kouyaté . And they have taken their koras into unlikely terrain such as reggae, salsa, and rock without jettisoning traditional themes.

"Electric Griot Land," the band's second album, available as a European import, states the group's approach in its title. The Jimi Hendrix reference is no accident, but the interplay of acoustic and electric kora, backed by Kourou Kouyaté, another cousin, on bass and Ibrahima Bah on percussion, is more elegant, less dissonant than the comparison might imply. Contributions from French-African soul duo Les Nubians, Somali rapper K'Naan, and Ivorian reggae star Tiken Jah Fakoly bolster the overall global-groovy feel.

Significantly, the critical plaudits for Cissoko on the world-music circuit have not come at the expense of local credibility. He spends as much time in Guinea as he does on the road, and his music has grown popular with the home audience despite his act of kora-goes-electric heresy.
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If an African kora-led album is called Electric Griot Land, it'll be different. For years, this instrument - a 21-string harp-lute with half a calabash covered with cow skin as a resonator - has been associated with the gentlest, most traditional African music, as exemplified by Toumani Diabaté and Ballake Cissoko's classic album New Ancient Strings. But Cissoko, 38, and his band are plucking the kora sound - and the ancient griot lineage - into the 21st century.

Cissoko says the album's name came about because Sekou Kouyaté, the band's electric kora player, is known as "the Jimi Hendrix of the kora", and because "all the band members are griot and from griot families. The name highlights the link between tradition and modernity." The other band-members include the bolon (a traditional West African bass) player Kourou Kouyaté and the percussionist Ibrahim Bah.

Cissoko's family has a long tradition of kora players, including his father and grandfather: "In Africa, it's common to say the 'Cissoko' play the kora and the 'Kouyaté' the balafon." As a child, he was football-mad and a bit of a rebel - playing the kora was the last thing on his mind. "But my father told me I was from a griot family and I had to at least learn the traditional tunes that all griot should play.
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