We all know Africa gave birth to the blues. Identifying the father has been a favorite game of recent CDs, which try to match John Lee Hooker's DNA to a specific West African style. Taj Mahal traded songs with a six-piece Malian folk ensemble fronted by kora player Toumani Diabate on last year's Kulanjan, a charming mess of a disc that sounded patched together without the benefit of any prior rehearsals. The Putumayo label anthology From Mali to Memphis alternated West African compositions and American blues, including Taj Mahal's "Queen Bee," with results that only widened the ocean of differences between the forms. Meanwhile Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure has built a career interspersing Songhai-based songs with Delta blues and pretending he can't tell the difference.
Yet another Malian musician brings traditional African and African-American genres together in what may be the most successful blending yet, mainly because he doesn't set out to prove parentage on his debut CD, Tunga. Instead Mamadou Diabate just makes brilliant music. Diabate's band plays songs that are recognizably within the Malian jali tradition, but with blues elements heartily stirred in alongside some loose-limbed soloing. Backing Diabate (who plays the kora harp) is Fuseini Kouyate on ngoni lute, and Famoro Diabate on balafon xylophone expositions that tear open every song he touches with unexpected joy.
"Dagna" kicks off the disc as Kouyate contributes the kind of static chording you'd have difficulty finding in the West African tradition, but Diabate sets this American rural-style riff alight with rapid-fire kora playing in the blur-fingered Gambian style. "Dounuya" plays off a Chicago blues framework with soulful vocals by Abdoulaye Diabate, a skittering balafon workout by Famoro Diabate, and such heavy Malian vibes that the New World references could well fly over the heads of one-eared listeners. The note repetitions coerced by both Diabates, as well as their syncopated phrasings, show an intimacy with jazz , as does the incorporation of New Yorker Ira Coleman, whose electric bass adds just enough funky modernity to liberate the ancient string and percussive voices.
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The players weave their magic so tightly, it takes a few listens to separate the fast exchanges between kora and ngoni. Their tones are similar, but the limited range of the ngoni lute and its slightly duller sound help set the two apart. It's still tricky because Kouyate coaxes a virtuosity from his instrument that I've never heard before. Even when the round and woody tones of Famoro Diabate's balafon join in, the group plays with the telepathy of a single large instrument. Excellence is taken for granted from a kora player named Diabate, but even more than his famous cousin Toumani, Mamadou gently pushes the edge with his beautiful, soulful precision. It may not solve the problem of defining the source of the blues, but it certainly points to an exceptionally creative offshoot.