Sounds like Africa—and rock n’ roll

Boston Globe, November 10, 2006

With its 21 strings, the long West African instrument called the kora delivers a sound rich in nuance and finesse. It also requires lengthy study. Together these factors have made it a vehicle for the preservation of traditional music by griots – the praise-singing troubadours of Mali and Guinea – rather than innovation and fusion with modern genres.

Then Ba Cissoko came along, with the band that bears his name. The Guinean combo, which visits the Somerville Theatre tonight on its maiden US tour, has jolted tradition by matching Cissoko’s conventional kora with an electric version invented and played by his cousin Sekou Kouyate. And they have taken their koras into unlikely terrain such as reggae, salsa, and rock without jettisoning traditional themes.

“Electric Griot Land,” the band’s second album, available as a European import, states the group’s approach in its title. The Jimi Hendrix reference is no accident, but the interplay of acoustic and electric kora, backed by Kourou Kouyate, another cousin, on bass and Ibrahima Bah on percussion, is more elegant, less dissonant than the comparison might imply. Contributions from French-African soul duo Les Nubians, Somali rapper K’Naan, and Ivorian reggae star Tiken Jah Fakoly bolster the overall global-groovy feel.

Significantly, the critical plaudits for Cissoko on the world-music circuit have not come at the expense of local credibility. He spends as much time in Guinea as he does on the road, and his music has grown popular with the home audience despite his act of kora-goes-electric heresy.

“What works at home isn’t always what works out in the world,” Cissoko says on the phone from a tour stop in Florida. “I try to mix the traditional and the modern. There’s a lot of traditional folk music in Guinea that’s only consumed in Guinea. I thought, why not modernize it?

“At first it wasn’t easy. A lot of old griots couldn’t accept the idea of an electric kora. They said, you’re turning it into a guitar. I said, it isn’t a guitar. The kora is a complete instrument; it can do lots of things. It was a way of creating an opening for the kora.”

Brad Powell, who runs the Boston-based online world-music store Calabash Music, says he was “blown away” the first time he saw the group play, in Marseille. “They will start off and launch into this very nice Afrobeat groove,” Powell says. “However, [Sekou Kouyate] has this whole bunch of effects racked up on his kora, and when he steps on the pedal, he lifts off into this other place. He sounds like Eric Clapton or Led Zeppelin.”

Something of a late bloomer, the 39-year-old Cissoko developed only slowly his investment in the kora and its future. Though he was born into a family of griots, and therefore musicians, as a child growing up in northern Guinea his overriding interest was soccer – until an uncle, kora player M’Bady Kouyate, intervened and took him under his wing. By traveling the country and playing with his uncle, Cissoko gradually found his vocation.

Cissoko moved to Conakry, the capital, and began to play at hotels in order to save up the money to baptize his kora – a ritual that signifies the end of apprenticeship and that involves expenses such as buying and slaughtering a sheep. When the time came, he says, he named his kora after his grandmother, Djeli Fatouma Kouyate. He now owns several koras, but that one, which he keeps in Guinea, is the most precious to him.

The hotel gigs had another effect: forced exposure to different musical styles, which guests would request he play interspersed with the traditional music.

“At the hotel, people asked me if I could play other things, like Phil Collins, Bob Marley, or popular French songs,” Cissoko says. “It isn’t easy to play reggae on the kora.” To illustrate, he sounds out a hard, syncopated reggae beat, quite different from the kora’s subtle sonority.

He also met a French trumpet player, Gilles Poizat, who was doing a year of overseas work in lieu of military service. They became friends, and Poizat spent time with Cissoko’s family learning kora basics. The idea of a kora-trumpet duo was outlandish enough to tempt them. The group they formed, Tamalalou, lasted several years in the 1990s and afforded Cissoko time in Marseille soaking up influences.

Ba Cissoko, the group, came together in 1998, first as a trio with the Kouyate cousins and, Cissoko says, quickly adding percussionist Bah, whom they discovered at a music festival in Mali after traveling all night by bush taxi, lugging their instruments. The foursome finally released their first album, “Sabolan,” in 2004. It earned them critical acclaim and touring opportunities in Europe and Japan.

All three of his bandmates are considerably younger than Cissoko, who therefore acts not only as a leader but also as an older brother, an important role in African society. But he hopes to go further and help a whole generation of musicians develop their careers.

“There are many young, talented musicians in Guinea,” Cissoko says. Nor is there a lack of audience; what is missing, as in many other developing countries, are performance, recording, and other facilities. He has set up a cultural center in Conakry, he says, where musicians can rehearse and perform.

Cissoko also hopes to spur a greater dialogue between the kora and instruments of other traditions. For two years running, he has convened an international festival of kora and strings, which aims to bring to Conakry guitarists and masters of other string instruments such as the Middle Eastern oud or the Indian sitar.

Initiatives like these are part and parcel of a refreshing artistic philosophy. For Cissoko, traditional and modern sounds need not crowd each other out, and local and global ears can be satisfied at the same time. It’s up to young artists to make it work.

“At first I played only traditional music, but at some point I wanted to modernize it,” Cissoko says. “Our parents before us created new things. Why shouldn’t we, the younger generation, create new things too?”