Time: 10 Tracks / 55 minutes
As a partnership principally between two solo strings players, this may fall into the love-it-or-hate-it category. With only one vocal track (in French) and paced like a lazy summer stream, it will fail to thrill those who live by mainstream radio. However, for those who love to hear themes unwinding and musicians weaving their improvisations around each other, this is entrancing.
Ballaké Sissoko’s father Djelimadi’s album of kora duets with Sidiki Diabate helped to make the instrument known in the west. Ballaké recorded a new version of that album with Diabate’s legendary son Toumani in 2006. French cellist Vincent Segal knew this new version, so when Ballaké Sissoko approached him, he was ready to collaborate.
Chamber Music is a strong title, partly because both instruments are classical in their respective homelands and partly because chamber music has been called, “The music of friends.” These duets were recorded live late at night in Mali, occasionally with a few of Sissoko’s friends joining them. The collection’s intuitive musicianship displays the deep understanding that developed between the two players.
I know of no other kora-cello duets, but the two instruments are well-suited for each other. The kora, a 21-string, traditional African harp-lute, has a beautifully clean, plucked sound that complements the bowed cello. The two musicians bring out a delightful mutuality, seeming to play all possible combinations of their tools: sometimes in unison, sometimes in counterpoint, often with the cello weaving snakelike around the kora’s sparkling notes and occasionally with the cello plucked.
Strong tracks are plenty, starting with the first. Its lovely, serene theme is easily recognizable, and the pair works around it like jazz musicians, each instrument bringing something specific. The nine-minute “Houdesti” takes its time as cello largely steps back to let kora improvise on the memorable motif, joined by ngoni and with a (marimba-like) balafon solo. Bearing in mind that there were no overdubs, this is a triumph of musical co-operation.
“Oscarine,” one of three tracks written by Segal, uses the full dynamic range, with such low notes from cello and bolon that when the kora comes back in near the end, its glass-like timbre is striking. The only weakness on the disc is a short scratchy cello solo here (and a slight rambling tendency in “Houdesti”).
Vocalist Awa Sanagho must get a mention. As she ends her lines, her voice almost becomes an instrument. She adds something new just at the right time, setting up the listener for another fourteen minutes of strings. It ends strongly too: “Mako Mady” has a simple riff that the pair plays with utter reverence.
But there are entrancing spells all over this disc (including one that could have come from Yes’s “Awaken”). It really is something special.