Heritage is an obvious title for Mamadou Diabate to choose. He comes from a family of masterful musicians: his father, Djelimory N’fa Diabate, played kora (the traditional 21-string harp that Mamadou also plays) in the renowned Instrumental Ensemble of Mali, and his cousin Toumani is one of contemporary Africa’s most internationally acclaimed performers. Through collaborations, Diabate has helped African-American musicians channel the forms of their ancestors. In the decade he’s lived in the US, he has embarked on such diasporic fusion projects with jazz artists like Roswell Rudd, Randy Weston, and Donald Byrd. And Diabate’s solo recordings draw from centuries of Malian tradition. Since 2000’s Tunga, he has revisited his home country’s canon of jeli songs, music first played over a thousand years ago by courtly entertainers who also functioned as oral historians.
Diabate has also processed a number of Western musical forms, however, and his performances here break from and revise his aesthetic heritage as much as they uphold it. For starters, his ensemble is an unorthodox one for a jeli: groups do not typically feature percussion, but most of the pieces here contain talking drum and calabash (a modified gourd used as a rattle) accompaniment. Diabate transposes frequently, too, allowing his kora to assume roles played traditionally by lute (“Fali”) and ballafon (“Yaribassa”). While the songs of the Mande people that he adapts focus in their original incarnations on vocalists, Diabate’s group dispenses with lyrics, instead allowing virtuosic kora and balafon (a West African xylophone) solos to sing. Diabate’s emphasis on solos is also unique, rooted more firmly in jazz and blues practices than in any jeli song forms.
“Joukouya”, a traditional piece performed by Diabate’s father in the 1960s, receives a new arrangement typical of the group leader’s innovative style. The rhythm is reworked into a propulsive, almost angular groove befitting Eric Dolphy or Tortoise, with calabash, acoustic guitar and upright bass anchoring the piece. Diabate’s kora states a verbose melody comparable to a baroque motif, and a fluid, mesmeric solo soon follows. Balafonist Balla Kouyate also solos, hammering dense, complex patterns. The piece’s abundance of notes might sound showy if transcribed for, say, a reed quintet, but the musicians coax short, exact tones from their instruments, stating their themes with precision and then getting out of the way.
While “Joukouya” demonstrates most clearly jazz’s influence on Diabate and his ensemble, a number of other pieces show how the blues have infiltrated his aesthetic. The crossover is an obvious one—the Malian pentatonic scale in which Diabate often composes is close to America’s blues scale—that offers many possibilities. In “Foulaya”, jabbing bent notes pepper Dijkorya Mory Kante’s guitar solo, leaving him sounding not unlike Ali Farka Toure. And in “Sandra”, the players all but play straight-up blues riffs. “Segou Blues” and “Ojiribah” also bear a strong blues influence, with Diabate performing in each a particularly articulate solo.
While these inspired fusions and displays of musicianship make Heritage a truly arresting work, the album’s sound quality is a bit antiseptic, each instrument’s timbre a bit too bright. As a result, the record heard in passing recalls the cookie-cutter world music of Putamaya compilations—when one takes the time to listen closely, Heritage emerges as a distinguished set of songs, but the studio polish might preclude such careful evaluations.
That said, this album stands out as one very atypical for the world music marketplace. It features no drones or tribal rhythms to attract experimental music fans and primitivists. The musicians also make no concessions to the pop music world—which is fitting, as jeli is a courtly form rather than a folk form. And with Diabate’s significant revisions, this work is nearly as much a reflection of American music-making as African. So don’t approach Heritage expecting a crash course in ethnomusicology or cultural studies. Diabate’s vision is highly personal.