Instrumental music is hard enough to sell, but instrumental music built on the kora — a 21-string bridge harp most popular in West Africa — is guaranteed to be ignored by the masses.
Yet even if most of the world doesn’t get “At Peace,” the latest release by Malian kora player Ballake Sissoko, those lucky enough to discover it will likely find it absorbing.
As the title indicates, “At Peace” has restorative value for its audience as the jazz/world music strains lure listeners with gorgeous melodies and the joy of discovery of musicians spontaneously (or nearly spontaneously) playing off each other.
Cellist Vincent Segal, Sissoko’s collaborator on his lauded 2009 release “Chamber Music,” is back, as producer and player. And the lineup is rounded out by periodic appearances of guitar, 12-string guitar and balafon (a percussive relative of the marimba and xylophone).
Sissoko’s kora is the one constant on every track, and his dexterous flow is striking, producing meditative cadence on solo cuts “Maimouna,” “Nalesonko” and “Kalanso” on par with the classical harp, though Sissoko’s passionate, sometimes violent, plucking and run of notes adds a soulful touch, stirring the sound out of hypnotic inertia.
“At Peace” picks up additional textures with the addition of other instruments, and the more layers there are, the more the tracks drift into implied storytelling. Segal’s cello adds emotional weight to the undercarriage, for instance, while Fassery Diabate’s balafon brings gravity-defying whim, especially on the strutting “Kalata Diata.”
The most impressive cut is the 10-plus minute “N’Tomikorobougou,” recorded live in Sissoko’s courtyard in Mali and featuring only his kora and the 12-string guitar of Aboubacar “Badian” Diabate. With all their shifts in phrasing and signatures, it’s amazing to know they’re just two men improvising and inspiring one another as they go.
They’ll inspire others too, if given the chance.
Rating: 4 stars (out of five)
© 2013, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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