An unlikely combination works surprisingly well.
There's no shortage of Afro-pop out there these days. What often gets overlooked in the waves of synthesizers, basslines, and beats, however, is that African music isn't confined to pop songs and dance tunes; there is a tradition there that extends back hundreds of years, and could be termed "classical", just as Indian ragas or European violin concertos are "classical" modes in their cultures.
This notion takes explicit form in Chamber Music, an album of duets between French cellist Vincent Segal and Malian kora master Ballaké Sissoko. No stranger to collaborations, Sissoko has previously collaborated with the likes of Toumani Diabate on 2006's New Ancient Strings and French pianist Ludovico Einaudi on 2005's Diario Mali. He approached Segal after hearing him perform in Paris and pitched a unique idea: A set of duets between the two men and their instruments.
An album of instrumental cello-kora collaborations may seem a dodgy concept, but it works wonderfully -- and to me at least, surprisingly -- well. The interplay between the kora and cello is as unexpected as it is beautiful. At times playing in unison, more often in counterpoint to one another, the two sets of strings create complex rhythmic patterns that are sometimes hypnotic, elsewhere energizing, and always engaging. Segal and Sissoko trade off playing rhythm and lead, resulting in a sonic landscape that shifts constantly and retains interest throughout the long set.
This is a quiet record overall, though never a dull one. Although there are moments of tension and long passages in which the two voices tug and tussle, the prevailing vibe is one of exploration and cooperation. On the ethereal "Houdesti", delicate tendrils of sound are repeated for minutes at a time, with minute variations in phrasing or instrumentation. Primitive percussion underscores the relatively uptempo "'Ma-Ma' FC", a playful tune that features Segal's exceptionally fluid playing.
Standout track "Oscarine" builds upon a quietly thrumming undercurrent -- a plucked cello, I presume -- while cascading runs of kora flitter above it. "Wo Yé N'Gnougobine" trundles along the familiar cadences of African folk rhythms, while "Histoire de Molly" toys with Celtic influences. Whatever the source material, these two musicians handle it adeptly, using the melodies and rhythms as a starting point for their explorations. Occasionally this takes them to less rewarding, let's-fart-around free jazz territory, but such meandering is thankfully rare.
Album closer "Mako Mady" is another strong cut, as Segal's bass tones and Sissoko's harplike arpeggios interweave to form something of brittle beauty, almost elegaic in tone. It's a fitting end to the record. It would be hard to jump up and dance to this music, but it is very easy indeed to stare out the window at the rain and let the mind wander.
Guest musicians make understated appearances throughout, but the focus remains squarely on the two principals, and these other occasional sounds serve only as accents. The record is satisfyingly hefty; only two of its ten tracks clock in at less than five minutes, which allows the musicians time to explore. Listeners interested in African music but looking for something more than the next Afro-pop release (or the latest 1970s "lost nuggets" reissue) may find much to savor in this low-key, finely crafted collaboration.