The Kora Band – New Cities
(Whirlwind Recordings WR4667. CD Review by Mary James)
There is a touch of The Stranglers’ harpsichord-driven Golden Brown in The Contract, the opening track of New Cities, the third album from The Kora Band. But it’s not a harpsichord, it’s a kora, the 21 string instrument from West Africa, its harp-like tones mesmeric and dizzying. Kora players are part of the griot/jali vocal tradition, keepers of oral history and storytellers, and sharp observers of current events. The virtuoso kora player here is Kane Mathis, an American who has played the kora since 1997, learning the repertoire with Mandinka masters in the Gambia including the late Malamini Jobarteh of Brikama. In all honesty, Mathis can now count himself one of these masters, having received accolades in the Gambia itself.
A chance encounter in a Dakar nightclub by pianist Andrew Oliver led to the formation of the all-American band and its amazingly authentic yet contemporary sound which explores the intersection between contemporary jazz and West African music. This is the third album for this band. All eight tracks are composed by Oliver with lyrics and vocals on one track by Mathis. Oliver took traditional songs, deconstructed them and then created new songs, hence the joining of the two traditions. The usually solitary kora becomes a real jazz instrument, leading, weaving and complementing. The result is very beautiful and unlike anything you may have heard before. It’s not jazz with kora, it’s a complete and complex sonic landscape utilising the core of each tradition – the strong grooves and cross rhythms of the Mandinka kora meshed with ensemble playing, mellow reed sounds, silvery brass, and some lovely tunes. A significant achievement.
The piano never once mimics a balafon, the instrument which sometimes accompanies the kora, although this may have been tempting. And there is a leisurely feel to the performances made all the more wondrous when you reflect on the dazzling cascade of sound from the kora, it can’t help but sound a million miles an hour. Particularly languid is the piano in Old Countries, a delicate lyrical ballad with the kora and piano chorusing like exotic birds in the forest.
New Cities is refreshingly different, high energy and as graceful as a dancer. If you have never heard a kora, then this is the perfect initiation.
The Kora Band are:
Andrew Oliver, piano
Kane Mathis, kora and vocals
Chad McCullough, trumpet and flugelhorn
Brady Millard-Kish, acoustic and electric bass
Mark DiFlorio, drumset and calabash
Lee Elderton, clarinet (tracks 3 and 6)
Mary James, who lives in Gloucestershire, is a jazz promoter and artist manager. Twitter @maryleamington