The kora player Diali Cissokho left Senegal for love, and settled in North Carolina. Here, he has put together a band of like-minded musicians. For Routes, he has taken them with him back to his home town of M’Bour, and recorded both there and in the US. The album opens with a hazy buzz of cicadas, recorded in North Carolina, and the sounds of a Senegalese fish market. The first song is “Alla L’a Ke”, part of the core west African kora repertoire, but here bulked out in succession with drumming (djembe courtesy of Kaira Ba’s Will Ridenour), then with alto saxophone from Alan Thompson, one of many guests, and finally with a string quartet. Cissokho’s singing turns the song into a memorial for his father, who first taught him the tune.
Similar cultural interplay can be heard throughout — the South American rhythm slinking through “Salsa Xalel” as a brass section hits the accents and John Westmorland takes a fluid charango solo; “Badima” ending with a cadenza of drumming and whistling, like an unexpected eruption of Brazilian carnival; Eric Heywood’s pedal steel on “Saya”.
The songs deal with the domestic — “Badima” recalls a family argument, interrupted only when Cissokho played his kora — and the personal: “Alla L’a Ke” recalls his father’s death, “Saya” his mother’s. On “Naamusoo” he contrasts her marriage with a beautiful but haughty woman who dies alone. Cissokho’s older brother Youssoupha composed “Xarit” to reinforce his own courage and identity when away from home, and Diali’s version of the meditation on friendship is stripped down to his kora in dialogue with Tony Williamson’s mandolin, with chorus vocals from the band.
For the most part, Cissokho’s kora is to the fore, weaving through the sweetly melancholy melodies of “Baayi Leen” and “Ndoli” with concentrated focus. But on “Story Song” Westmoreland cuts loose with even-tempered Desert Blues, backed with delicate organ chords and Tamisha Waden and Shauna Tucker’s wordless vocals. “Do you hear these instruments?” asks Cissokho rhetorically. “You can’t play music like this if your heart is not beautiful.”
The album closes with “Night In M’bour” — a melody of drum ensembles, children chanting the Koran, late-night food preparation, and marriage guidance in the form of a song from Cissokho’s nephew Mamadou.