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Chords and Notes

This week at Music World...

Kulanjan: Taj Mahal And Toumani Diabate

Hannibal, CD, Rs. 600

"THEY SAY that the blues and jazz came from Africa. The kora and ngoni are many centuries old. So maybe the blues were once played on these instruments." — Toumani Diabate

"That's five centuries right there. The music just went round in a big ring." — Taj Mahal

The tiny Western African nation of Mali is believed to be the ancient cradle of the African griot tradition of storytelling through music. In recent years, Malian music has met up with a long lost descendant that matured in New World exile, the all-pervasive genre all of us know as the blues. The Grammy award to Talking Timbuktu (Ali Farka Toure's collaboration with Ry Cooder) triggered global interest in Malian music, especially the seminal "Malian blues". Now there is this new family re-union between American bluesman/musicologist Taj Mahal and Toumani Diabate, one of Mali's few surviving practitioners of the six-century-old Mande griot tradition.

Oral historians

The Mande griots were hunters/ healers/ songsters/ oral historians who trace an unbroken hereditary chain harking back to the 13th Century, when they were court minstrels to Sunjata Keita, the first emperor of Mali. Their favoured accompaniment is the kora, a 24-stringed African harp with a gourd soundbox. One of its acclaimed exponents, known all over West Africa as the "king of the kora", is Sidiki Diabate, who recorded the world's first solo kora album Kaira (meaning "peace and happiness"). Sidiki subsequently joined forces with fellow kora artiste Jellmadi Sisoko (an elder statesman of Malian music, and founder of EIN — the Ensemble Instrumental National du Mali). The collaboration resulted in a landmark instrumental album entitled Ancient Strings, featuring a duet between the two koras, entitled "Kulanjan" (meaning long-crested hawk-eagle). According to Taj Mahal, he first heard "Kulanjan" 20 years ago, and this eponymous album, in collaboration with Sidiki's son Toumani Diabate, and Jellmadi's son Ballake Sissoko, marks the culmination of a two-decade-long dream.

Taj Mahal himself has been a modern-day blues griot in his native land, the U.S. of A. Born Henry Saint Clair Fredericks in New York City (1942), he is also had hereditary musical genes — his father was a noted jazz arranger and pianist. Taj developed a long and passionate interest in black and African folk musical styles while studying animal husbandry at the University of Massachusetts.

Soon, turning to music full-time, he started out on the Boston coffee-house circuit as a self-accompanied folk troubadour. Over the years, he steeped himself in every conceivable musical style, starting from the blues to Caribbean and African music to ragtime to rock to jazz. He can play over 20 musical instruments, and has recently won Grammy awards for the albums Senor Blues (in 1997) and Shoutin' in Key (in 2000). A much sought-after accompanist and collaborator, he has scored several films and TV shows, and collaborated with dozens of musicians (including Carnatic veena maestro Ravikiran and Hindustani mohan-veena maestro Vishwa Mohan Bhatt on the album Mumtaz Mahal).

Common strands

All the common strands/counterpoints that bind/set apart the blues from this genre of African music are explored in this album. The mellifluous female singing voice of Ramatou Diakate is set against Taj's huskier blues tenor.

The material is made up of blues standards such as "Queen Bee", "Catfish Blues", "Ol' Georgie Buck", and Malian love ballads, hunter's songs, and paeans to departed heroes. A curious antiquarian link with the blues is the ancient precursor of the xylophone known as the balafon, tuned to a blues scale and sporting 18 wooden keys. Check out its funky boogie groove embellished by Taj's rhythmic piano chords on the track "Fanta Sacko" (named after Toumani's wife). Aside from the pentatonic scales that are common to all blues, African music and Indian music, listeners will also discern the plaintive Sufi lilt in many of the Malian vocals featured here — causing me to idly speculate whether these styles could be traced to a common source. An ear/mind/eye-opener, Kulanjan is an absolute gem of an album, to be instantly grabbed at first sight.

Take Your Shoes Off: Robert Cray

Rykodisc, CD, Rs. 600

A FREQUENT visitor to these columns (see the MetroPlus, June 23, 2003, review of Heavy Picks, and the April 12, 2004 review of Shoulda Been Home), Robert Cray graces us with yet another appearance with yet another Grammy winning album (in the Best Contemporary Blues category). This one is the fifth Grammy of his career, and his eleventh Grammy nomination. ("When your peers award you for doing something close to your heart, you just want to dig deeper and work even harder," as he humbly remarked after the announcement.)

Produced by Steve Jordan (who worked for Keith Richards and Aretha Franklin), this album bears Jordan's taste for traditional soul, and features him on percussion on most tracks.. The soul accent is underscored by occasional backing from The Memphis Horns, chorus vocals by The Nashelles, and more subdued guitar solos from Cray.

On the other hand, he has given freer rein to his seductive crooning voice, which has definitely reached a new peak on this offering. The category of his Grammy notwithstanding, this is essentially a soul album, though with a blues inflection.

Especially worth a listen are the tracks "Pardon", "24-7 Man", "That Wasn't Me", and "What About Me".


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