It's the age of cultural mixing, and one of the best examples of mutual musical understanding anywhere is found on Kulanjan, the recorded encounter between Taj Mahal and Mali's Toumani Diabaté. A more natural pairing for cultural collision could hardly be imagined. Taj Mahal's rootsy blues have always resonated with African echoes, and the American singer has identified musically with Africa throughout his long career. Toumani Diabaté is a virtuoso on the kora, a twenty-one string lute endemic to the ancient royal Mandingo culture of West Africa; his brilliance shines in his recent traditional release, New Ancient Strings. Yet Diabaté is also an experienced musical explorer, having dropped his kora into Salif Keita's electric outfit for years, and integrating his music with the nuevo flamenco band Ketama for two classic Songhai recordings. Still, the shared empathy for two distinct musical expressions has rarely been so evident as it is on Kulanjan.
The album opens with a Taj Mahal favorite, the venerable "Queen Bee," but it is not Mahal who opens the singing. Instead a rising Malian star, Ramata Diakité, takes the lead on top of the intertwined kora and guitar, creating her own melody and original lyrics. As the tune rolls along, Mahal and Diakité mesh their separate melodies and lyrics to make one symbiotic song. It's exquisite.
"Tunkaranke" follows with the entrance of Kassemady Diabaté, certainly one of the finest Mandingo singers of them all. The Malian tune is slowed dramatically to achieve a rural blues pace, and Kassemady is all the more impressive for being able to adapt his vocals to the languid rhythm. Indeed, his singing is a delight throughout the disc. Another highlight is the rollicking piano/balafon mixup with Mahal and Kassemady trading verses, and truly getting down on "Fanta."
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Maybe the wonder of this fine release has something to do with the production methods used to record it. Stick a gaggle of open-minded musicians in a house, leave them alone, and odds are they will end up communicating, no matter if they share a musical language. Along those lines, Mahal and the West Africans moved into an Athens, Georgia, house/studio, and after a few days of eating and breathing music together, they recorded. A witness described that period as having magic in the air, and said the music just flowed. Part of that magic is ably captured on Kulanjan.