Missed Music

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Malian Kora + Blues = Four star World Music from Taj Mahal and Toumani Diabate

One of my very favorite regions for World Music is West Africa. West African music often has pop chord progressions that are very friendly to Western (American) ears and modern production values. Artists including Peter Gabriel, Sting, Dave Matthews, and many others have collaborated with West African musicians to have hits on both continents.

The Blues evolved in part from an unaccompanied vocal style from Mali and other nearby nations. It is that intersection I am recommending today in the fantastic collaboration between Blues legend Taj Mahal and Kora legend Toumani Diabate.

Taj Mahal came on the blues scene in the 1960s and has played with Ry Cooder, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Eric Clapton, Etta James, and Muddy Waters (and many more). He has released over 30 albums. A distinguished, accomplished musician.

Toumani Diabate comes from a traceable line of 71 generations of musicians. Apparently, you can do that when your country is more than a couple hundred years old. He is a world reknown Kora player with 10 albums to his credit and a reputation for being comfortable blending Malian music with flemco, jazz, and blues (and the nearly unclassifiable Bjork).

Hmm. Clever, symboic cover art.

Hmm. Clever, symboic cover art.

These two musicians collaborated in 1999 on Kulanjan and explored an interplay between traditional West African music and traditional blues (albiet with a shorter tradtion). The result is colorful and complex; familiar, but fresh. The common ancestry makes this like listening to a musician accompanied by his grandfather who taught him.

The album is strong throughout and I have 9 tracks on my iPod World Mix.

  • Queen Bee – Taj sings this blues classic sweetly and Toumani’s Kora blends seamlessly with the guitar. Backup vocals provided by a woman singing perhaps in one of Mali’s 13 native languages help make this perhaps the prettiest song on the disc.
  • Tunkaranke – This is a slow and beautiful piece that makes me think of sunrise.
  • Kulanjan – The plucked guitar and kora sound like a waterfall, or maybe it’s trekkers through the desert dreaming of water. This might be my favorite track on the disc.
  • Fanta – Taj and Toumani take turns on vocals in this playful tune that features syncopated piano and vibes (or the African equivalent).
  • Catfish Blues – You can hear the West African influence on Blues in this near-perfect blend of styles.
  • Take This Hammer – The light stylings of the female vocalist give an exotic and airy bounce to the bluesy chord progression.
  • Atalnta Kaira – This song has Taj sitting back and fitting more comfortably into a traditional West African groove.
  • Mississippi Mali Blues – This shows off improvisational strengths of both musicians in their respective traditions.
  • Sahara – In an interview with Taj Mahal I heard shortly after this disc was released, he said this was a traditional piece played on caravan. “Sixty-miles-to-the-oasis kind of music, you know?”

I am particularly excited because this summer Toumani Diabate will be performing at Bonnaroo with jazz legend Bela Fleck. I am convinced this will be an electrifying performance, as Toumani is comfortable blending styles and Bela has succeeded at everything he has tried musically, in my opinion. Can’t wait!

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April 1, 2009 - Posted by | Blues, World Music

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