Photo copyright Youri Lenquette
Arts Festival Review: Ba CissokoReviewed by Tyler Hersey
The National Bank Festival Club
With world music fusion bands seemingly a dime a dozen these days, it takes true originality and soul to make a splash on the international scene. Hailing from southern Guinea, Ba Cissoko projects all of the qualities which he has inherited as part of the griot tradition of musicians and storytellers: a commanding stage presence, a deep voice full of character, and instrumental skill that speaks of both years of apprenticeship and great imagination.
The group which Cissoko has formed and given his name holds a number of appealing traits. From elastic, danceable beats to blazing musicianship, they have synthesized the human touch and soul of African tradition with Caribbean reggae rhythms and modern guitar pyrotechnics. Cissoko’s songs originate in time-honoured Mandingo epics, as well as modern chronicles of life sung in Sussu or Peulh. For accompaniment, he has recruited two sons of legendary kora player M’Bady Kouyate: Sekou, a virtuoso kora player just out of his teens, and Kourou, a rock steady bassist who glues the entire band together. Complimented by young percussionist Ibrahima Bah, who plays mainly amplified wooden bowls and drums, the group creates music which incorporates rolling African rhythms with a driving melodic sensibility.
The kora is a 21-sting chordophone constructed from a large, round calabash gourd which is cut in half lengthwise and covered with a stretched cowhide. From the top of the gourd, a long neck protrudes like a broom handle, with strings stretched in a v-shape from different points along the neck to the bottom of the gourd. The result is reminiscent of a giant upside-down lollipop, held at waist height by a shoulder strap and two handles mounted vertically on the skin of the instrument. The kora player holds these handles with the third, fourth, and fifth fingers, while plucking the strings with both thumbs (from the top) and forefingers (from underneath). In the hands of Ba Cissoko and Sekou Kouyate, the sound of the kora sits somewhere between harp, mandolin, and flamenco guitar.
With Cissoko handling lead vocal duties, Sekou is free to wax lyrical on the kora throughout each song. His playing both ornaments and extends the vocal melody during verses, and during solos his liberal use of electric guitar effects such as distortion, wah-wah, and flange creates a huge sonic palate. Cissoko’s kora playing is more impressionistic, stacking notes together into wide, ringing chords which present a number of melodic possibilities for Kouyate to follow. This combination of Cissoko’s traditional style and the linear, single-line storytelling by Sekou affords the group a wide range of sounds and moods within the sparse framework of their songs.
The repertoire of Ba Cissoko ranged from quiet, introspective tone poems to full on rockers anchored by double time reggae beats. Each player was excellent, whether it be Sekou pealing off blazing licks on the kora or Ibrahima Bah breaking down the rhythm to just the sound of a few fingers tapping on talking drums. Though the mood of the concert was mellow, a group of dancers soon formed in the back of the club, and a middle aged man in front of me pumped his fist in the air repeatedly in acknowledgement of Sekou Kouyate’s instrumental heroics. Having released their debut album only a couple of years ago, this group is guaranteed to grow into a legendary African band, sitting alongside such luminaries as Ali Farka Toure and Oliver Mtkudzi. Witnessing Ba Cissoko and his group in action was a truly energizing and enlightening experience – I would highly recommend this concert series to any lover of world music with a taste for the unexpected.