The kora, that 21-stringed harp wielded by West African griots, is expertly plucked by so many people surnamed Cissokho that it’s impossible to keep track. But one thing’s for sure: if you’ve got a Cissokho and a kora, you’ve got beautiful music. The Cissokho in this instance is Diali, his lineage is traceable to 16th century Mali and he’s a Senegal-born player who presently calls North Carolina home. His latest work is named Routes, even though “Roots” would have been just as suitable. Cissokho took Kaira Ba, his Tar Heel State bandmates, to his Senegalese hometown of M’dour to lay tracks for this album, and then went back to North Carolina to finish things up. Esteemed players on both sides of the water had a hand in what results, and while this sort of hemisphere-crossing project is not new, the outcome is first rate.
The opening “Alla L’a Ke” alone is a feast of sonic delights, with Cissokho’s kora and voice chiming majestically atop an earth-moving foundation of sabar drums joined in short order by a string quartet, a rousing leap in tempo and a saxophone sweetening the climax.
Next, “Badima” goes an entirely different route (yes, the album title is coming into play here), harnessing swirling organ riffs and rockish guitar jolts to carry a Mandinka message of family unity. By this point it’s clear that no two songs on this release are going to follow the same formula, so feel free to either dance or chill or some measure of each as you enjoy call-and-response punctuated by pedal steel guitar, a declaration of love in dual languages of both the literal and musical kind, a conciliatory bit of reggae, blends of African and American blues and songs that respectfully tweak tradition.
Keeping the kora never far from the front lines, Cissokho makes way for all sorts of acoustic and electric sounds, including instruments as potentially chancy as mandolin and marimba. A degree of influence from some of Cissokho’s compatriots is clear- “Salsa Xalel,” for example, put me in mind of Baaba Maal. But the routes taken by Cissokho and his many skillful collaborators (too many to list) are marked by newfound freshness in the service of the familiar. And they lead to some mighty fine music. -Tom Orr