Dawda Jobarteh Transitional Times
Sterns Music (www.sternsmusic.com)
Review by Dylan McDonnell
"Our Time in Tanjeh"
Gambian multi-instrumentalist Dawda Jobarteh and his top-notch band of Danish, Cameroonian, Ghanaian, Cuban, and Gambian musicians embrace an accessible fluidity of styles, and thus emotions, on Transitional Times. The album centers on Jobarteh's masterful playing on the kora, the Mandinka West African harp that has became a staple piece of transnational “world music” projects. His group's particular matrix of plucked strings, electric rock instrumentation, spiritual jazz, and a loosely unifying theme allows them to toy with labels and stereotypes while opening into less-trodden ground.
Despite belonging to a lineage of lauded jaliya or griots who helped spread recognition of the kora beyond West Africa (including his grandfather, Alhaji Bai Konte), Jobarteh only began to focus on the kora after relocating to Denmark, having initially studied the calabash in the Gambia. However, he exhibits all of these skills on Transitional Times, which embraces both songs from the jaliya tradition, as well as original and adapted compositions that incorporate other idioms. “Winter Trees Stand Sleeping” and “Our Time in Tanjeh,” the opening instrumental tracks, present the environment that underlies the rest of the album: disparate ideas forming from a “nebula” or chaotic form into something not quite fixed, but better defined than what comes immediately before.
"Lullaby Med Jullie"
Other kora-centric songs on the album deal with transition or tension of some kind, often primarily in timbral or lyrical choices. A prime example is “Lullaby Med Jullie,” on which Jullie Hjetland Jensen provides a linguistic juxtaposition to Jobarteh's rhapsodic kora cycles, blurring our understanding of the musicians' respective sound worlds. “Kaira” (literally “peace” in Mandinka), which seems to evoke a more ideal state of the world, features cascading gestures and vocal phrasing found throughout the canon of jali songs.
Among the starker pieces, layers begin to build. The starkness of Jobarteh's multi-tracked vocals on “Efo” propel him into, arguably, a more heightened space where his Mandinka lyrics airing grievances about politicians' hypocrisy towards immigration rights might not be comprehensible to all or even most listeners, but allow for an emotional opening that affirms a distinction between transition and progress. Additionally, moments of arena-drum fills and Preben Carlsen's distorted guitar lines challenge the stereotype of introspection and calm that the kora often evokes in foreign audiences.
"Bright Sky Over Monrovia"
Some of the more upbeat pieces from Transitional Times straddle boundaries between popular styles of the Senegambian region. According to Jobarteh, “Mama Sawo” marks the transition of kora-based music from “a listening to a dancing music,” while “Bright Sky Over Monrovia” and “All One” draw on sabar and Cuban son clave rhythms characteristic of Senegalese mbalax. The featured basslines of Alain Perez and Etienne M'Bappe ground these tunes in mature melodic development beyond the kora.
“Transition,” the cornerstone of the record, is an adaptation of a Coltrane piece from his mid-1960s period. Jobarteh presents it as both a literal and an abstract reference to connections sought between kora-based music and jazz, which achieves a certain degree of truth: Jakob Dinesen's tenor sax work seems to bridge aspects such as melodic contour, improvisational flourishes, the finality in cadences, and heightened emotionality. Though this may be the rowdiest piece of the album, it passes through several states, from the serene to the aggressive. On a similar mission, “Jamming in the Fifth Dimension” is an ode to Santana's “Love Devotion Surrender” period: ethereal strands of distorted kora and conga percussion braid into rhythmically intricate lines against the pulse. Jobarteh dials in with the percussionists on simultaneous hits and dynamic sensitivity despite the veneer of chaos.
"Jamming in the Fifth Dimension"
As is apparent from the artistry and intention on Transitional Times, the ineffable occurs alongside the ephemeral: Jobarteh's renderings of traditional pieces bring us as close as possible into the soundworld of an attentive indigenous audience but cannot replicate that world because of time, context, language barrier, acoustic limitations, etc. However, the rest of the album conspicuously surrounds those gestures with others that listeners likely know and love, thus asserting a sensibility imbued with the stuff of transition itself. - Dylan McDonnell