Dawda Jobarteh: Transitional Times

The West African kora goes from classical to cosmic on Dawda Jobarteh's brilliant sophomore release.

Dawda Jobarteh

Transitional Times

Label: Sterns Africa
US Release Date: 2016-10-14
UK Release Date: 2016-10-14

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.






A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.