Thursday, September 11, 2008

Album Review: Jayme Stone and Mansa Sissoko-Africa to Appalachia

Jayme Stone and Mansa Sissoko's new album, Africa to Appalachia released September 9th by, is a beautiful display of uniquely original composition that bridges continental gaps to speak the universal language of music. Jayme Stone, an award winning Canadian banjo player, and Mansa Sissoko, a griot kora master and vocalist, collaborate to create a heterogeneous yet familial mix of sounds that achieves a deep beauty and character.

Africa to Appalachia spans continents to create a sound all its own. Featuring African instruments like the kora and ngoni alongside the banjo, fiddle, and guitar, the ensemble finds an extremely comfortable common denominator and explores the possibilities therein. Mansa Sissoko's African vocals dip and glide much like bluegrass fiddler Casey Dreissen's solos, and the banjo blends perfectly with the kora to provide a seamless harmony. The polyrhythms, syncopation and bended pitches that define bluegrass all come from their African heritage, so it's no real surprise the two musical cultures speak the same language so effortlessly.

Many people think of the internet or phonographic recording devices as the means of globalization's effect on music cultures, but the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade predates them both. The banjo is a descendant of West African instruments like the ngoni, akonting, and xalam. It was first played by African Slaves in the American South and Appalachia. The genres in which the banjo has traditionally thrived, bluegrass, early jazz, and especially the minstrel shows of the 19th century, all trace part of their lineage back to Africa as well.

Jayme Stone, who has employed an expansive musical worldview throughout his career, traveled to Mali, West Africa to explore the roots of his instrument in 2007. He traveled the country and studied with African string masters Toumani Diabate, Bassekou Kouyate, and of course, Mansa Sissoko. It was in Sissoko that he found a partner with which to collaborate. The two used the universal language of music to connect and get to know each other's history, "With little common language between us, we turned to music for communication," Stone reflects. "This tangible heart-to-heart connection was there immediately and I knew that he was the perfect collaborator for the project."

Sissoko descends from a revered line of griots, or family line of musicians, historians, and dispute settlers, that date back hundreds of years to the Mande Empire. Griots play a special role in African culture, similar to the one musicians play in American culture. "The griot is someone who is there to play the role of blood in the society, for the society to live," says Sissoko, "He gives life to the society, musically, using carefully chosen words."

Jayme Stone and Mansa Sissoko have given the world a gift by simultaneously creating a beautiful collection of music and giving testament to music's ability to bridge gaps, facilitate cultural dialogue, and bring people together. This album is a continuation of the cross-cultural exchange that was started in the 15th century. It was made possible by other musical works that have explored the history of African-American music and it will inspire others in the future. They'll be performing at Drom in the East Village on October 9th. Judging by their album, their live show should be even more captivating, so definitely check them out.

Jayme Stone Myspace

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