Music

Alba Griot Ensemble Blends Celtic and Malian Influences on 'The Darkness Between the Leaves'

Photo: Coralie Rabadan / Courtesy of Riverboat Records

Autumn comes at last in the blissful strings of cross-continental acoustic group Alba Griot Ensemble's debut.

The Darkness Between the Leaves
Alba Griot Ensemble

Riverboat

28 September 2018

In the gentle opening notes of Alba Griot Ensemble's debut The Darkness Between the Leaves, there is a chill. The melancholy guitar work of Scottish musicians Mark Mulholland and Craig Ward are quickly joined by the Malian ngoni of Yacouba Sissoko, who also serves as a percussionist. Belgian double bassist Hannes d'Hoine completes the unorthodox string quartet, lending a resonant back end to opening track "Melt My Blues Away", an ode to the increasing darkness inherent at the end of summer. The group sings of taking to whiskey to cope with the snow and silence before finding solace in a beloved. "I'm sitting by your fire / As you melt my blues away," rings the hopeful refrain. The sentiment is as old as music itself, but the way Alba Griot Ensemble delivers it – with tender twang and a seamless, international blend of musical styles – is what makes it stunning. Master drummer Tony Allen's distinctive drumbeats driving the second half of the song forward make for a perfect final touch.

While Ward and Mulholland have worked together before, on 2012 album Waiting for the Storm, Mulholland's 2014 move to Mali was, in many ways, the catalyst for Alba Griot Ensemble. The addition of ngoni master Yacouba Sissoko is key to the Ensemble's sound, the sounds of Afro-Manding blues a perfect complement to the Celtic folk sounds Mulholland and Ward provide. Meanwhile, d'Hoine is the perfect jazz bassist: flexible and always willing to step outside the box to do whatever suits the group as a whole. On "Shadow Queen", he is an absolute must, acting, alongside guest vocalist Pamela Badjogo, as a stable pulse when the rest of the ensemble takes a moment to explode into cathartic chaos.

Along with Allen and Badjogo, other guests add extra star power to The Darkness Between the Leaves. Toumani Diabate, one of the best-known contemporary kora players, adds a bright whirlwind of sound to the album's title track. Allen and balafon player Lassana Diabate lend rhythm and might to "Long Way Home", the album's most uptempo song and one heavy on harmonies.

Harmony, incidentally, is in heaping supply among Alba Griot Ensemble, both sonically and in terms of simply working together. Every band member gets a chance to sing at some point; Sissoko takes the lead on "Horonia". The core instruments come together so well that, while each guest adds something wonderful to the mix, it would be just as worthwhile to listen to the four main musicians as an unaccompanied unit all the way through, as they are on "Blurred Visions" and "Horonia", each as softly spectacular as anything featuring Tony Allen and Toumani Diabate.

At nine minutes long, "North Wind" closes the album with the help of Allen, Badjogo, kora player Madou Sidiki Diabate, and keyboardist Jean-Philippe Dary – a slow, smoky cross-continental jam session that builds to a low-key ferocity. It makes for a majestic conclusion in its deliberate understatement, and The Darkness Between the Leaves makes for a perfect way to say farewell to hot, sticky summer and usher in awe-inspiring autumn.

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