The brothers record centuries of inherited musical wisdom on this pleasant kora album
A trend one might expect to find when searching for the best albums from every country in the world is that it would be challenging to find many good ones recorded in the smaller nations. Whilst this hypothesis is grounded in logic, once again we find an exception to the rule this time from the smallest country in mainland Africa. Thought often as more of a river masquerading as a country, The Gambia’s miniature size has not stopped them from having a rich music culture that has impacted sounds across the globe as the Gambia River was a major source of slaves during centuries as a colony. Despite having a different colonial experience that leaves the nation English-speaking, unlike their francophone neighbours Senegal, culturally the two nations are closely linked which of course impacts their music.
“Malamini Jobarteh and Dembo Konte really show off the intricacy with which the instrument can be played...”
Both known for their wolof drumming, as well as for the glorious mbalax genre, The Gambia’s biggest modern musical export is Sona Jobarteh, a luminary figure on the world music scene as one of the world’s only female kora virtuosos hailing from a griot family. Now, it is common knowledge amongst African music nerds that she is cousins with “King of the Kora” Toumani Diabaté, but perhaps less is known about their mutual grandfather, Amadu Bansang Jobarteh, one of West Africa’s most well-renowned jalis (guardians of Mandinka oral tradition).
Also held in immensely high-regard in The Gambia was Bai Konte, another jali who played a vital role in making this album possible. Not only is he the father of the two musicians who created this record, but he also brought kora music and Mandinka music culture into the global public consciousness like never before, as he is thought to be the first kora player to perform and tour in the United States, paving the way for there to be interest in the recording of an album of kora music in the first place.
Though each musical instrument has its own merits, I have to admit that I haven’t quite been enamoured by any instrument quite like I have with the kora. It soothes me in a way that is almost indescribable. Whilst I have heard the kora fused together with numerous other sounds, from pop to qawwali, there is something rather cleansing about hearing the instrument played with such mastery in a stripped back manner. Malamini Jobarteh and Dembo Konte really show off the intricacy with which the instrument can be played, with the latter actually expanding its range by adding extra bass strings to the classic 21-string model.
Jaliya has something almost regal about it, with the plinky-plonky sounds that can be heard on Segou tutu and Tutu Jara reminding me of a scene I could visualise in my minds-eye during the Tudor era at Hampton Court. The latter of those tracks is accompanied with humming which is immensely endearing. The fact that the kora very much takes centre stage is not a slight on the vocals that come in on Mbassi but simply a sign that these hereditary griots know where to focus their energy. My favourite track is the serene Bamba Bojang, though Solo is also indeed deeply hypnotic. The surprise on the album is the 18-minute long final track Cheddo which, although its hefty runtime might seem off-putting, is in fact an improvisation that flows beautifully like the river for which The Gambia is famed.