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Arts Festival Review: Djan Djan

Arts Festival Review: Djan Djan

Review by Tyler Hersey

Djan Djan
Pacific Blue Festival Club, 3 March
Pataka Museum, Porirua, 4 March


Synthesizing the musical traditions of three continents and countless centuries, the players of Djan Djan weave exotic melody and loping rhythm into a palette of sound and texture which binds the humid air of India with that of the Mississippi Delta, while conjuring visions of African savannah tickled by the first seasonal rains.

A trio consisting of Australian slide guitar player Jeff Lang, Mumbai-raised Bobby Singh on tabla, and Malian griot Mamadou Diabate on the kora, Djan Djan have created a true amalgamation of styles which evokes the rich history of each instrument with every composed passage and flight of improvisation.

Performing for an appreciative audience at the Pacific Blue Festival Club, they displayed a level of maturity and respect for each other's musical backgrounds often absent from world music fusion. Not content to offer a simple mashup of disparate styles, each player has digested the diverse influences of the entire group, sounding completely at home whether playing blues, Indian, or African music.

Drawing from their sole eponymous album, released earlier this year, the relatively new combo put on two hours of muscular musicianship laced with enough dynamic group interplay to compensate for their somewhat limited repertoire. Beginning with fairly safe five minute readings of “Synaly Joh” and “Sandjibah”, the evening started slowly, gently introducing the audience to their tightly intertwined counter melodies and head bobbing rhythms. After warming up with these appealing tunes, they soon took off into extended fiery improvisation on the Diabate-penned “The Great Keppel” and album title track “Djan Djan” (Malian for “far away” or “I'll meet you there”).

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Most songs began with a solo instrumental introduction by Diabate, after which he and Lang would lock into a repeating ostinato riff played in the lower registers of their instruments. Once Singh joined in to hold down the groove, Lang and Diabate would take turns weaving complex lead passages over simple chord changes, stretching their respective sounds to reference everything from Robert Johnson's thumbed blues laments to Indian sarod master Ali Akbar Khan's relentless metallic embellishments. Lang in particular displayed masterful use of the entire range of his guitar, from deep rumbles on the low strings to high keening glissandos played at the very top of the neck.

Diabate, whose solo record Douga Mansa just won the 2010 Grammy award for best traditional world music album, led the group throughout with muscular thumping bass notes overlaid with silvery cascades from the 21 harp-like strings of his kora. With a heavier touch and rockier tone than his famous cousin and teacher Toumani Diabate, Mamadou plucked insistently at single notes throughout the first set of songs, constructing sentence-like phrases which seemed to echo African speech patterns.

After a short intermission, the group settled into a more delicate and soulful pocket – playing with an incredible dynamic range which leapt from near silence to romping enthusiasm in the space of a few measures.

The best music of the night came late in the show with exciting renditions of “Niger Blues” and “We Brought You Here”, both of which began with slow, soulful melodies before leading seamlessly into uptempo rockers which sent several listeners into the aisles for a dance.

These songs were more heavily composed than those played earlier in the show, incorporating precise traded melodies and stop-start rhythmic hits which gave them more variety than the rest of the material. Diabate absolutely owned the second set, abandoning the single note phrases for incredibly intricate lightning-fast runs up and down the scale of his kora, plucking with a controlled ferocity which was echoed by Singh's masterful tabla explosions.

A delight to watch, the players of Djan Djan succeeded in bringing together styles of music which otherwise might stay quite far apart.

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Press releases: New NZIAF Nightclub on the Wellington Waterfront NZIAF 2010 Programme to the Wellington Region
Arts Festival website: Djan Djan
Scoop Full Coverage: Arts Festival 2010

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