The Silimbo Passage is cool and placid. The violin lilts in “Bimo”, grinding a little on the low notes, just enough to give them some traction. Seckou Keita’s kora sails past, a white yacht on a blue ocean. A listener drifting along with the yacht might find themselves starting to dream up new categories for the convenience of record stores whose managers want to stock albums like this: Afro-Euro-Classical, maybe. Genial-classical. Your Four Seasons, not your Wagner. Formal tranquility, open arms, gentleness, something welcoming. Maybe the category could be called Attractive Music That Likes You and Is Pleased to Be Liked Back.
The stories behind the West African lyrics are sometimes sadder and harsher than the music. According to the liner notes, “Bimo” deals with “betrayal, and what it really feels like to loose [sic] your best friend.” Keita and his sister Binta Suso address the treacherous friend in a rare moment of sung English: “Whatever you do … You can’t hurt me no more”. In simpler language, “Fuck You.”
The voices are gentle. There is a wistful twang. The solo kora piece “Missing You”, dedicated to the memory of two dead friends — non-treacherous ones this time — wouldn’t cause a stir if you put it on a Mind and Body Relaxation album. When the Quintet decides to work some flamenco into its generally Mandean sound, then it’s not the Spanish music’s harshness they adopt, but the sway of it, the dip and the bounce. They like their flamenco nice and nuevo, lying on the mattress of the modern guitar’s cushiony boing.
The Quintet is based in the UK. Keita comes from Senegal, originally, as does his sister. Suso is credited with “lead voice,” “backing vocals,” “doun doun” — a double-ended cowskin-covered bass drum that we hear giving off a hearty thwap in “Dingba Don” — and “clapping.” Davide Mantovani plays two kinds of bass, Surahata Susso the calabash and other percussion. Samy Bishai is in charge of the violin. Everybody gets to sing on track two. The notes for this one ask us to “Listen to the horse calls,” because “it is time for deliverance.” I’ve listened to the song at least four times now, and I still don’t know what that means. What horse calls? What horse? What are they talking about? The notes could use work.
Suso has a better voice than her brother, who stays in tune but likes to stop his phrases short when he could be carrying them. Listen to the way he clips back the “i” at the end of the word “souaressi“. Suso, on the other hand, is a carrier. She adopts a knifelike, declamatory griot mode, bringing sharpness to “Maniyamba” and others. Her voice is bright and hard. It’s the implacable quality of her singing, along with the Gypsy sound of Bishai’s violin, that partly saves The Silimbo Passage from its own niceness. There’s a spiky texture in the violin that you don’t get from the kora, which might be the reason why kora/violin combinations have worked well in the past. Niceness prevails, though — it’s the niceness I remember, the serenity. A bit too much of it.