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Alba Griot Ensemble
The Darkness Between the Leaves

Riverboat Records (www.worldmusic.net)
Review by Alex Brown

This intriguing collective connects musicians from Scotland, Belgium and Mali to create a blend of Celtic folk music with rock, blues and jazz undertones, woven together with a strong Manding influence. Scots Mark Mulholland and Craig Ward feature on guitar, while Belgian Hannes d'Hoine provides the foundation on double bass and Malian Yacouba Sissoko adds ngoni, calabash, yabara and karanya to the mix. All four members sing and add their harmonies to the project with fine guest appearances from Tony Allen, Toumani Diabaté, Madou Sidiki Diabaté, Pamela Badjogo, Lassana Diabaté, Jean-Philippe Dary, and Ruth O'Mahony Brady.

The seeds of The Darkness Between the Leaves were sown when Mulholland moved to Mali and established a friendship with Sissoko. Mulholland had previously recorded with Ward and d'Hoine and Sissoko slotted into the group effortlessly. This atmospheric album, captured and nurtured by David Odlum, was mostly recorded in Scotland and at Studio Bogolan in Bamako. The quartet works seamlessly, spinning their acoustic instrumentation into a natural, harmonious style that is full of depth. None of the separate elements sound out of place and the performances draw from the strength and support of the ensemble. While improvisation is mostly reserved for the ngoni or the kora, the group does a nice job extending some songs into a welcome ambient, psychedelic freedom.

Mulholland's compositions and lyrics are evocative and genuine, balancing forces of light and dark throughout the recording. The opening track, "Melt My Blues Away," is full of imagery and matches the music well. The rich sound of the Sissoko's ngoni plucking away with the acoustic guitars and a resounding double bass is infectious. Tony Allen's steady beat enters later on to lock everything down and the wild string programming flourishes from Ruth O'Mahony Brady add great texture. This song feels like the damp cold of Scotland and the warming fire mentioned within the chorus uplifts the piece.

Listen "Shadow Queen"

D'Hoine's double bass rings out on the "Shadow Queen," which draws in the fluid kora playing of Madou Sidiki Diabaté, with spirited percussion from Lassana Diabaté. When the song drifts into space, Pamela Badjogo adds great atmospheric singing to the mix of balafon, ngoni, bass and guitars. The harmonized vocals tie everything together on this memorable groove.

Listen "Blurred Visions"

"Blurred Visions" is a gentle, reflective song that blends the ngoni with acoustic guitar and the double bass that cycles with some delicate ambient guitar work from Craig Ward, adding a sense of longing and distance to the track. The heavy plucking of the bass with the softer touch of the ngoni creates a warm balance.

Listen "Darkness Between the Leaves"

The title track, "The Darkness Between the Leaves," feels like it rises out of "Blurred Visions." From the ambiance emerges a beautiful composition with strong lyrics from Mulholland. The piece is propelled by d'Hoine's chopping bow on his bass. The ensemble provides a great platform for Toumani Diabaté's twinkling kora phrases on this well-worked track.

Listen "Long Way Home"

Tony Allen cooks up a storm on the uptempo "Long Way Home." Lassana Diabaté's dexterity on balafon creates a multicultural groove heavily influenced by Nigeria and Mali. Sissoko's playful, funky ngoni playing merges with Allen's drums and some tight calabash playing to join the instrumentation together.

Listen "Horonia"

"Horonia" is written and sung by Sissoko and is a standout track on the album. His rich, textured vocals give the group a different feel and this stripped down song puts the ngoni and the calabash at the forefront. Both the ngoni and double bass have nice features between the vocal passages. Sissoko's leadership here is notable and he reveals the prowess of Alba Griot Ensemble's adaptability.

Listen "Labyrinth"

The album begins to wind down with "Labyrinth," a tender composition that focuses on how the little things in life can end up having a lasting impact. Lassana Diabaté again adds his expertise on balafon to the song, which extends towards the end with some nice bowed double bass from d'Hoine.

"North Wind" is a fitting closer. The expansive sound of this lengthy track is impressive. Tony Allen, Madou Sidiki Diabaté and Pamela Badjogo all rejoin the ensemble with the addition of Jean-Philippe Dary on keyboards. Allen's mellow afrobeat groove leads to some fine kora improvisation before shifting to a loose jam that allows Badjogo's beautiful voice to shine. Dary's synthesizer and d'Hoine's distant, frenetic bowed bass fills out the sound. The group's jam never feels out of sync and eventually leads into an industrial sound with the synthesizer commanding the final segment with trailing vocals from Badjogo.

Alba Griot Ensemble are a cohesive unit, combining traditions, cultures and styles into unique mixture. The pulse of Mali is constant thanks to Sissoko's vital contributions as well as that of many of the guest musicians. The sincerity of Mulholland's Scottish folk blend is enhanced by this dynamic group and their genuine release. The Darkness Between the Leaves is a fine, rewarding listen. - Alex Brown

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