"In Africa, when an old man dies, it is like a library burning." Amadou Hampate Ba
...with thanks to Ben Mandelson and Lucy Duran
This is a piece by Sekou Batourou Kouyaté better known as Batourou Sekou or Batrou Sekou Kouyaté who, legend has it, was one of Toumani Diabaté's teachers. His kora sound is like shining glass because he tuned the kora up to G, one tone higher even than the modern players who use F and sometimes E. The piece is Duga, a word in Mande languages which my friend Lucy Duran tells me means vulture, strangely enough a metaphor for a brave warriors. So Duga is played for brave warriors. The challenge with this piece is to do the embellishments and be back in time for the rhythmic part...my version is a mix of improvised embellishments and embellishments I learned from Sekou's recorded version from the late 1970's.
The point of entry for many Africans taking the dangeous and illegal route to Europe from Libya. Toumani says that he wrote this song to remind young people that the grass is not necessarily greener in Europe, and to remind them that a full life could be lived back home. This version I learned from the two kora version by Toumani and his son Sidiki. Having played many of Toumani's solo pieces I have learned a few tricks of how to combine different voices on one instrument. So I used these tricks in this arrangement to combine the accompaniment of the one kora with the improvisation and singing line of the second kora.
This is a beautiful old Mande song about a python from the time of the Ghana empire (9th and 10th centuries). The original version appears at the start of my arrangement, echoing a performance by a well known Gambian kora player called Jali Nyama Suso (c. 1925-91). But then a new rhythm enters, which is the incredible genius of the Diabaté's...a rendering of the original harmonic structure in a totally new rhythm, and then cascades of melodic invention which never repeat themselves, only once hinting at the original melody at the end of Toumani's opening solo. Once again I have condensed two koras onto one guitar, sometimes having to bring the kora part down an octave, but mostly keeping all the voices...first Toumani's stately solo set against Sidiki's accompaniment, then Sidiki's more explosive, rough, raw and virtuosic solo bringing us to the beautiful theme at the end. This arrangement began as a duet for John Williams, then it was as though two continents merged and I realised it had to be a solo price. In many ways it is a combination of everything I have learned playing Toumani's solo works, the harmonic excitement of Tubaka, with the rhythmic complexity of Jarabi.
This for me is the most beautiful piece in the world ever. It was sung in its first recorded version by the incomparable Fanta Sacko who disappeared from public life some years ago, presumed dead. While I was in Bamako I was sitting in a car with Djelifily Sacko, her nephew, and he was talking about how he needed to visit his aunt...this was a little like finding out that Nina Simone is alive and well and would like to invite you to tea...her voice is haunting, beautiful, like a translucent reed. The original song is called Tita and has the most beautiful text about love and betrayal that just breaks your heart. Salama is a two kora version from New Ancient Strings, the incredible duo recording by Toumani and Ballaké Sissoko, condensed again to one guitar. The baseline is the same as Jarabi, but the seventh note of the scale is tuned down a half step, making the minor mode and altering the entire mood of the piece, from Jarabi's joyful exclamations to the heart rending pining of Tita.
The literal meaning of the title is “where two rivers meet” and refers to the meeting of two rivers, the Bafing (black) and the Bakly (white) rivers. The original song, Mali Sadjo, tells the story of a hippo who was killed by a white hunter. The new version here is by Toumani with Ballaké accompanying on second kora. The progression reminds me of Elyne road, almost a simplified version, but because of the two koras the melodic improvisations are far more complex. It was extremely hard to play this and learn it on one instrument. The final riff is revisited in The Symmetric Orchestra's version of Mali Sadjo, the most fabulous harmonic and rhythmic cycle you can imagine which I finally heard live in Bamako just after recording this album.
Innovation is a double edged sword. I am not yet convinced that the development of an instrument is always a good thing. The modern kora has tuning heads like a guitar and is now tuned to a ‘equal tempered’ C scale like a modern piano, using a guitar tuner. I have spent a frustrating day or two trying to string a kora using with the old the traditional system of plaited leather rings for tuning, where you push them up or down to change the pitch, and I also watched a student at Toumani's compound changing his strings over three or four days, his hands bleeding and raw by the end, so I can understand the appeal of the modern invention. But there is nothing like the sound of the strings vibrating off the leather tuning rings, and they make me wish I could have heard the old strings which were strips of twisted leather, replaced many years ago by nylon fishing line just like the strings of the modern classical guitar. But Si Naani shows the other side...it is now possible to change the notes and scales of the kora strings with ease and Toumani makes use of this by creating a new version of two traditional songs, one ‘Musu Maramba’ (Beautiful Woman) and the other from Njaaro, a Fula piece in honour of brave warriors, in a Phrygian tuning, something which would be impractical on the old kora. Playing this on guitar required an entirely new tuning of the strings of the guitar too, a tuning I borrowed from the great Brazilian composer Egberto Gismonti.
Ballaké Sissoko has not recorded many pieces entirely solo, but this is one of them, off his latest album At Peace. Ballaké shows another side of the kora, closer perhaps to the ngoni, the beautiful four string lute which is a cousin of the kora. The cross string ornaments, open improvisation and spaciousness are a hallmark of his style and a perfect example of how different one player can be from another. My version plays this piece in the key of D, a minor third lower than Ballaké's original and somewhere closer to the pitch of the kora during the first decades of the 20th century.
This piece which means “it will never get old” is based on a well known traditional piece from the 18th century called Tutu Jara, a piece composed on the ngoni or kontingo, a lute which is perhaps one of the close ancestors of the banjo, a beautifully percussive instrument that looks almost like a simple kora but is played like a guitar or lute. The percussive stabs of the konting can be heard in this kora arrangement which comes again from New Ancient Strings played by Toumani and Ballaké. The open nature of the piece allowed for some free playing in the middle, which point towards a special place for me, a meeting point between some of the music I play and the more traditional and even classical kora repertoire. This piece is usually reserved for the praise of a great person, so I dedicated my version to Nelson Mandela who was sick in hospital when I first began playing this.
This is a magnificent piece by the great Amadou Bansang Jobarteh (c. 1914-2001), half brother brother of Toumani's father and one of the greatest players in The Gambia. The piece is a lament for Alfa Yaya Diallo who ruled at the turn of the 20th century and fought against the colonial French. The song is a lament, telling how he was unjustly put to death for murder after being framed by rivals. I have combined it with an original composition which I dedicated to Anna Magdalena, Bach's second wife who wrote the only surviving manuscript of Bach's solo cello suites.