Trio Da Kali and the Kronos Quartet feel like a match made in heaven, musical soulmates who found each other even thousands of miles away. It’s a melodic, fairytale union, and Ladilikan is the fruit of their collaborative labor: a sweet, soulful album that brings together old-time Malian sounds and contemporary classical strings. It’s a combination that just makes sense.
Neither half of the pairing overpowers the other; the woodsy timbre of Fodé Lassana Diabaté’s balafon lends a fittingly soft touch of percussion to the Quartet’s often restrained strings and Mamadou Kouyaté’s nimble bass ngoni. When she takes the forefront, Hawa Diabaté sings with a resonant depth that anchors the entire group, and her phrasing speaks volumes to the sincerity in their lyrics.
The opening scales of “Tita” lead the ensemble into the airy fantasy that Trio Da Kali and the Kronos Quartet create, and when Hawa Kasse Mady Diabaté’s voice winds its way in, it creates the perfect overlay to the steady, swaying beats at the song’s foundation. As gentle as the instrumentation can be, there is a dramatic flair to the vocals that keeps the album entrancing, and on tracks like “Kanimba”, strings and percussion make stronger waves with a quicker tempo – and without sacrificing any of the loveliness inherent in the ensemble.
Among the most powerful moments, if not the most powerful moment, is the title track itself, an arrangement of Mahalia Jackson’s “I’m Going to Live the Life I Sing About in My Song” that speaks out against the deadly political and religious conditions in northern Mali. “Ladilikan” begins with an intricate introduction by all five string instruments and the balafon that culminates in a rapid, electric flurry of bass ngoni notes before Diabaté delivers her most dynamic vocal performance of the album, reaching both extreme ends of her impressive range. Even then, she never sounds like she has to push; the music simply soars from her lungs.
It’s no surprise that all of the members of Trio Da Kali come from impressive family lines of musicians; they perform with subtlety and virtuosity, absolutely at ease playing with what is unquestionably one of the most famous and versatile classical groups currently making music. Everyone involved with Ladilikan plays with a sense of perfection, but also with truly human emotion and expression, so while each track is unquestionably smooth, its intensity makes it something considerably more satisfying than the coffee shop soundtrack it easily could have been with a less passionate group.
Helping matters, each group came to the table with considerable enthusiasm for working with the other; Kronos Quartet founder and violinist David Harrington called the album “one of the most beautiful Kronos has done in 40 years”, and Lassana Diabaté approached it with the viewpoint that Ladilikan would end up being “the best collaboration of [his] life”. Those are strong statements from two men who have spearheaded some truly impressive collaborative albums, and Ladilikan lives up to that hype. This is intercontinental hybridization at its most enchanting, an enjoyable cross-genre exploration filled with heart, harmony, and a vital energy that takes old traditions and makes them into something wonderful and new.