The West African kora goes from classical to cosmic on Dawda Jobarteh's brilliant sophomore release.
It's difficult to find, anywhere on the planet, an instrument more evocative than the kora. In nimble hands like Dawda Jobarteh's, it can sound like starlight, as capable of playing West African folk music as twangy bluegrass or smoky jazz or a host of other styles. Jobarteh makes the kora's versatility, as well as his own, crystal clear on Transitional Times, a no-holds-barred demonstration of musicianship and string power. There's a breathtaking range of music here, from Scandinavian lullabies to acid hits of Afrofuturism, and every second of it is absolutely beautiful.
The sheer range displayed from start to finish on Transitional Times means that in addition to a healthy dose of kora, there isn't a single lull, no droning filler tracks to bridge gaps between the interesting bits. Instead, every possible context is explored with skill and care.
Jobarteh starts with his feet firmly on the ground, as soothing track "Winter Trees Stand Sleeping" serves as a gentle opener, almost entirely made up of solo kora and a melody that ascends and descends with soft steps. Acoustic and earthy, it could practically sneak into A Prairie Home Companion without anyone realizing how far from Lake Wobegon they really were. From there, the breeze blows harder, and subsequent songs feel more awake than the titular winter trees. Single "Efo" brings in strong vocal harmonies and a darker intensity as Jobarteh sings about human rights, and electronic filters dial up the emotional volume.
From that point forward, the floodgates are open. Brighter, more traditional sounds for the Sunday afternoon crowd abound, hitting that perfect balance: warmth, not heat; sundown, not high noon. A full drum kit and saxophone make many of these pieces even more accessible. "Kaira" sounds like a trip through wine country, while "Transition" sounds like an early night at an Istanbul jazz club.
Right in the middle of the album, Jobarteh heads into the space age with "Jamming in the Fifth Dimension", an intergalactic piece of hard electro-funk that lives up to its ambitious title, taking the kora far from its stately roots and blasting off into a land of fire and ecstasy, going from the Gambia to Jupiter and beyond. It's a faster-than-light frenzy, a true voyage into the unknown, especially when it comes to the kora. Following this, "Lullaby Med Jullie" takes the album back to the ground, landing squarely in the north. Featuring the vocals of Danish singer Jullie Hjetland Jensen, the song folds African and European sounds together in a light, sweet duet.
Warm, rhythmic Afropop tracks keep up the momentum for the rest of the album. "Kanoo" stands out as a particularly drum-heavy interlude before "Presenting the King" sees the kora at its most elegant in a slow and majestic march. Wrapping up the album is "Dalua", peppered with birdsong and fluttering strings for a lively ending.
With such a delicate timbre and flexible sound, it's true that it's hard to go wrong with the kora. To lump Jobarteh in with any other kora masters, though, would be a mistake. His instincts and confidence with his instrument allow Transitional Times to go where most classically-trained string players never venture, with comforting folk tracks and experiments that lie far outside the box. Dawda Jobarteh has a shining future as he continues to embrace every musical possibility, and it's a future he's shaped for himself.