As I put this CD on, I thought of Soul Science, another album that came out of a partnership between a West African and a Western musician. Released in the US only a few months ago, it was still fresh in my mind. On Soul Science, the Westerner (Justin Adams) was a blues guitarist from the UK, and the African (Juldeh Camara) played the single-stringed ritti fiddle. Here on Africa to Appalachia, the Westerner is a Canadian, Jayme Stone, who plays the banjo, and the African comes from Mali and plays the kora.
“I spent seven weeks in Mali researching the banjo’s African roots,” Stone reports in the liner notes. In Mali, he met Mansa Sissoko, “a walking encyclopaedia of Malian music.” Then Sissoko moved to Quebec. This album came afterwards. Its mixed African-Canadian-American provenance is apparent in the notes. It is likely the only kora-banjo album in the world to incorporate a song named after the capital of Mali and created during a jam session “at the Holiday Inn in Boulder, Colorado.”
So, I was expecting something like Soul Science, but with a banjo and a kora. In Soul Science, the partnership ruled the album — you were always aware of both the guitar and the ritti, and the pair of them sparred at the front of each song. Sometimes a third man joined in on percussion. The credits on the back of Africa to Appalachia list nine musicians aside from Sissoko and Stone, a much larger group than the trio on Soul Science, but, still, I thought: the rest of them will probably not appear very much at all, they’ll sidle in here and there, contribute a bar or two, then vanish, leaving Stone and Sissoko centre stage.
That is not what I heard. Africa to Appalachia has the sound of a group, an ensemble, not a duo. The banjo doesn’t spar with the kora, there isn’t the grab and attack of Soul Science. Instead, the two instruments go along almost in tandem, or at least in sympathy. Plucked string obliges plucked string. The kora bubbles and trickles and the banjo sits with it, keeping time, or forming complementary spaces. The kora, with its lacelike and intricate patterns of notes, is the more attention-catching instrument, and, as many of the songs follow a West African sound rather than an American bluegrass sound, you could easily forget that this album is a partnership, and start to think of it as a Mansa Sissoko project. Mansa Sissoko and Friends, you’d think. Or Mansa Sissoko and Casey Driessen and Friends. Dreissen’s Americana fiddle is the one instrument that rams headlong up against the kora, shadow-boxes it, flies away on its own, returns, flirts, bumps heads, frisks its drawling, tangy, bowed notes against the pling and pluck of the rest. When it goes away, then the surface of the music is often subtly worked, dependent on the interplay between similar sounds. In “Dakar”, the unsawn strings swarm together like bees in a hive, crawling in and out, a sort of melodious vibration. The noise is lightly sensuous.
There is effective singing from Sissoko and striking singing from Katenen Dioubate, a Guinean vocalist in the griot style. Like Sissoko, she is resident in Canada. His voice is plainer than hers, straightforward, and not as strong, yet they make a good team. Together, in one menacing song called “Tree to Tree”, they sound as if they’re telling old ghost stories while the instruments whine and shiver in the background. On “Kaira Ba”, he’s a roughness to her purity. He sings, she sings, the percussion rotates, strings come in, the kora and the banjo tumble over one another. Africa to Appalachia is a nicely complicated album, an appealing surface with a lot going on underneath.