Marrying music and culture

Diali Cissokho left his native Senegal for North Carolina years ago. Raised as a griot, one of the traditional musical story tellers and historians of West Africa, he wanted to continue playing music in his new home. It may have taken a while to find the musicians he was looking for but, writes Richard Marcus, it was worth the wait

By Richard Marcus

It's a long way from Senegal to North Carolina in the United States. Yet the new record from Diali Cissokho & Kaira Ba, "Routes", on their Twelve Eight Records ties the musical heritage of both areas together beautifully.

For this album Cissokho and his bandmates (Austin McCall drums, Will Ridenour percussion, John Westmoreland guitar and Jonathan Henderson bass and producer) decided to formalise the marriage between the musics of the two countries by recording in both his hometown of M'bour in Senegal and North Carolina. After their recording sessions in Senegal they returned to America where they completed the process by adding the music and sounds of Cissokho's new home. Everything from the sound of Carolina cicadas to pedal steel guitar and gospel singers make an appearance as representatives of the New World.

While the connections between the music of Africa and its descendants on the North American continent have often been explored and experimented with, this album goes a little bit further than just finding the point of intersection between the two sounds.

What we have here is not merely a merger – where the two sounds either jockey for position to find prominence or concede so much in an attempt to blend that neither hang on to any of what made them special in the first place – but a meeting of two equals, who have found common ground where they can exist in harmony.

Cover of Diali Cissokho & Kaira Baʹs "Routes" (released by Twelve Eight Records)
Kora to pedal steel guitar: Diali Cissokho and Kaira Ba have produced an album of incredible music. From the heart-stopping drum and flute introduction to the album's closing song, "Night in M'Bour", to the simple beauty of "Saya", the album is full of magical moments

In spite of beginning with a chorus of North America cicadas, numbers like the opening track "Alla L'a Ke" have the feel and sound of traditional West African music.

Led by the distinctive sound of Cissokho's kora, the piece follows the patterns we've grown used to hearing in West African, specifically Senegalese and Malian music. Beautiful, melodic lines are woven between the interplay of the kora and the other instruments in the band.

Consummate craftsmanship

Yet this same song is also an example of the hard work that has gone into creating this marriage of music and culture. Firstly, there is the description offered by producer/bassist Henderson on how they created the piece, which involved writing an arrangement for the string quartet heard running as an undercurrent in the song.

In fact, they have done such a clean job of blending the sounds together, you'd be hard pressed to claim you could make out any distinct string passages in the tune. This song also admirably prepares us for what we're going to be hearing on the rest of the recording.

Within this one track we can distinctly hear the band travelling physically and musically between Senegal and North Carolina. While the tune's overture is the sound of evening in the latter, its finale are the evening sounds of the streets surrounding the band's recording facility in M'bour.

Musically the song appears to be travelling in the opposite direction. For while the first two thirds of  "Alla L'a Ke" sounds like it was lifted straight from the streets of M'bour and its environs, the last two minutes evolve into a far more free form jazz sound that eventually merges with the street sounds. While the transition is heralded by both a change in Cissokho's voice and an insistent  drum, the switch to treated trumpet and arrhythmical percussion comes as a bit of a shock. However, that doesn't mean it doesn't work – once you find your feet within the second section, it begins to make sense and you appreciate its sound and feel.

The street sounds at the end of the track act as a bridge to the album's second song, "Badima". While it could almost be termed straight ahead afro-pop, you can still hear the band pushing it in different directions. Near the end of the song, they sound as if they're introducing a percussion sound I've come to equate with the music of the Caribbean. I wouldn't have been surprised had they started playing steel drums.

Magical moments

While salsa might not sound like the kind of music you'd associate with West Africa, according to Cissokho it is incredibly popular and is something he learned to appreciate from his father. All of which explains the inclusion of the song "Salsa Xalel" on the recording. Having laid down the basic tracks for it in Senegal, including the addition of balafon (a kind of wooden xylophone) and talking drum, they then brought it back to North Carolina to add the backing vocals by gospel singers Shana Tucker and Tamisha Waden.

Probably one of the most surprising sounds on the recording, however, is also close to the best. Who would have thought that pedal steel guitar could blend so beautifully with kora? Simply the idea of pedal steel guitar mixing with West African music sounds outlandish, but it actually fits in almost seamlessly. In fact if you didn't know it was being played on the song "Saya", you'd be hard pressed to recognise it.

"Routes" by Diali Cissokho & Kaira Ba is not just some clever experiment, it is an album of incredible music. Despite being a really wonderful example of cultural cross pollination, in the end you forget about all that and simply enjoy the sound of what they have created. From the heart-stopping drum and flute introduction to the album's closing song, "Night in M'Bour" to the simple beauty of "Saya", the album is full of magical moments. Listening to it is a joy from start to finish.

Richard Marcus

© 2018