Ablaye Cissoko & Volker Goetze – Sira – ObliqSound OS106, 54:09 ****1/2:
(Ablaye Cissoko – kora, voice; Volker Goetze – trumpet)
By no means a jazz record, Sira is the third disc by Senegalese griot singer and kora player Ablaye Cissoko, here joined by German jazz trumpeter Volker Goetze. The kora, a West African 21-stringed instrument that sounds like a cross between a lute, a harp, and a koto, has become rather well known in the West through the work of Toumani Diabate, whose playing with Ali Farka Touré has been widely praised, and his younger cousin, Mamadou, who made a name for himself on Ben Allison’s great disc, Peace Pipe.
Traditionally, the kora has been the instrument that has accompanied traditional singers called griots of the Manding peoples from the West African countries Mali, Senegal, Gambia, and Guinea. These singer/musicians are part of a caste that is tasked with preserving the deeds and heritage of their people. Thus, a grand tradition and legacy featuring long-established musical elements and requiring a lengthy apprenticeship characterizes this intriguing music. Indeed, the griot plays roughly the same role in West African societies that the bard played in Medieval Celtic societies.
Lately, that’s been changing with the cross-fertilization of Eastern and Western musical traditions as blues and jazz musicians such as the above mentioned Allison and Farka Touré have incorporated the instrument into their music. This collaboration takes things one step further.
One is immediately struck by the stark beauty of this recording. It has a simplicity and mystery about it that come across as entirely natural, almost naïve, except that it’s also quite sophisticated. The basic formula goes like this: Cissoko establishes a lilting, folk-like figure on the kora, sings with sensitivity and deep emotion in a stirring tenor, and is then joined by Goetze playing unison lines or counter melodies on muted or open trumpet. It requires a high level of accomplishment for musicians operating with such a limited aural palette to maintain interest, but these two are up to the challenge. Placing the kora, a diatonic instrument that can play only in one key, in a jazz-like setting can easily result in musical stagnation. These players avoid that pitfall by virtue of their deep listening, sensitivity, and respect for their disparate worlds. The result is a deeply satisfying musical encounter that bears repeated listening.
TrackList: Sira, Domain Domain, Lountang, Gorgorlou, Faro, Bandingwoo, Bouba, Bamaya, Sakhadougou, Manssani Cisse
– Jan P. Dennis