Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Jali Kunda: Griots of West Africa and Beyond

This is another excellent release by the Ellipsis Arts label, in which kora master Foday Musa Suso, whose work has been highlighted on this blog previously, worked on selecting, coordinating and arranging the selections on this record.

There are fifteen tracks, most recorded in the west African nations of Guinea-Bissau, The Gambia and Senegal, with three featuring collaborations between Suso and Western musicians, including composer Philip Glass, jazz saxophone titan Pharoah Sanders, and the ubiquitous Bill Laswell, among others.  These three works are well-done and complement the more traditional pieces, although the liners do explain that "this recording was made with both authenticity and an international audience in mind," specifically in that "the length of the pieces has been substantially shortened."

That said, there are some marvelous pieces to savor on this record.  There are a few examples, moreover, of duplicated works, though usually with different instrumentation, vocalizations and in location.  For example, the bookend pieces, consisting of a Muslim invocation to Allah, includes a version from Senegal and another from The Gambia.  What is described in the notes as "the most famous Griot song," called "Sunjata," celebrating the warrior king who established the great Mandinka empire in the 1200s, has a version from Guinea-Bissau and another from Senegal.  And, the excellent "Lambango" has a version that uses the xylophone-like balafon and which was recorded in one community in Guinea-Bissau, while another, employing the harp-like kora is from another part of that country.  Another highlight is "Sorrie," a Mandinka tune from The Gambia that has great balafon playing.  One other piece to point out is "Yata Kaya," a Fulani piece from Senegal, which Suso stated was a favorite tune utilizing the one-string fiddle called the nyanyer and which represents the type of music that is starting to fade from the music scene in that country.
Of the three "fusion" pieces, "Spring Waterfall" is a Suso piece in which he used effects to create what is described in the notes as "cascading layers of the kora" with Glass playing a non-intrusive piano accompaniment.  "Lamnbasy Dub" has been featured in some compilations produced by Laswell and was originally released on an album called New World Power by Suso's The Mandingo Griot Society and released on the late, great Axiom label, in which he plays an electric kora, while Laswell employs the bass and samples, Jeff Bova, known for his ambient electronic music, plays electric keyboards, and frequent Laswell collaborator Nicky Skopelitis and Clive Smith utilize other programming.  Laswell's bass is particularly effective here.  Finally, there is "Samma," another standout on this record, in which Suso on kora is joined by Sanders on tenor sax for a great blending of instruments, expertise and melody and sound.
Ellipsis Arts put together a string of well-chosen, sequenced and produced "world music" recordings in the 1990s and Jali Kunda is an excellent example of the quality of the label's offerings, of which more will be featured here in the future.
Jali Kunda: Griots of West Africa and Beyond (Ellipsis Arts . . . 1997)
1.  Allah l'aake  2:38
2.  Sunjata  5:40
3.  Sinyaro  3:00
4.  Mariama  4:24
5.  Spring Waterfall  7:17
6.  Jula Faso  3:14
7.  Sunjata  3:03
8.  Lamnbasy Dub  8:19
9.  Jula Jekereh  4:42
10.  Lambango  2:42
11.  Samma  8:25
12.  Sorrie  3:32
13.  Yata Kaya  4:54
14.  Lambango  7:51
15.  Allah l'aake  3:30

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