If, at any point whilst listening to Tali, the opening track on Ladilikan, you think ‘so Tubular Bells has finally reached Africa,’ please stop listening, pick up your glockenspiel, and kindly vacate the room.
Now we’ve got that out of the way, let’s enjoy one of the most artistically beautiful albums made in recent times. Ladilikan is a project by the Aga Khan Music Initiative (AKMI), launched by His Highness the Aga Khan to support talented musicians working to preserve, transmit, and further develop their musical heritage in contemporary forms. On the record, Southern Malian musicians Trio Da Kali join forces with string virtuosos, and seasoned collaborators, Kronos Quartet.
The well-travelled San Franciscan four-piece do not let their status overshadow three of Mali’s most talented griot musicians, skilfully accompanying Mamadou Kouyaté’s punchy ngoni rhythms.
David Harrington, founder of Kronos Quartet, likens Hawa Diabate’s voice to American Gospel queen Mahalia Jackson. On God Will Wipe All Tears away we hear the full extent of Hawa’s extraordinary vocal talent, effortlessly sliding across ranges to give a moving rendition of an early Mahalia Jackson recording.
More than anything, this is a showcase of Fodé Lassana Diabaté’s hypnotic balafon skills. A long-time member of the excellent Toumani Diabaté’s Symmetric Orchestra, Lassana Diabaté is note perfect with his controlled and mesmeric beatmanship. I’m first and foremost a fan of guitar music, but I would trade in any garage rock ticket to go and see Lassana Diabaté’s solo in Lila Bambo. With twenty-one wooden keys to hit at such speed, the margin for error is so great that seeing the likely occurrence of Lassana play without a single mistake would be one of life’s most exhilarating musical experiences.
Ladilikan is a stunning demonstration of modern-day, cross-cultural collaboration, combining griot story-telling with Western craftsmanship. For those of you who wish to know the history of the album, buy the record and absorb the brilliance of the detailed liner notes, which not only shed light on the background of production, but give a track-by-track breakdown of the inspiration behind the songs, offering deeper understanding of Malian tradition. Each song has been translated to English so the poetry is not lost on unversed ears.
Sometimes it is the impromptu music collaborations that work best and who would have thought that a Malian Griot trio of folk musicians would pair up with a highly respected western classical music string quartet that has developed a reputation for left-field recordings that include Elvis Costello, Phillip Glass and Terry Riley among others. The reality is that the musical meeting of minds works magnificently, and producer Nick Gold deserves great credit for making it sound so authentic. A wonderfully evocative scene is set from the outset by the glorious opener that is, ‘Tita’, with the simple, yet highly effective and repetitive use of the balafon by Fodé Lassana Diabaté, with the piercing vocals of Hawa Kassé Mady Diabaté. A truly stunning start and one of the year’s most compelling African numbers. Where this musical métissage works so well is that the southern Malian component is allowed to flow and the western strings blend in, yet remain respectful. In the process, this enables some sublime layered textures to be created as on the string motif led piece, ‘Eh y a ye’, which is a genuine fusion of styles. That said, the Kronos Quartet do bring their own national folk influences to the table and this is illustrated on the very western swing country feel to, ‘Garba mama’, with the use of fiddles, and here, the Malian vocal contribution is slightly more restrained, and a delicious jazzy bass line. In other places, such as ‘Kanimba’, the layered strings serve as de facto background vocals. Another winner of a release from World Circuit and this must rate among their very greatest world roots fusion releases.