Taj Mahal & Toumani Diabate
Hannibal / Ryko

The respected American Bluesman Taj Mahal (aka Dadi Kouyate) has spent the last twenty years seeking out the purported African sources of the Blues. His curiosity was ignited by a tune called "Kulanjan", in a version recorded by Toumani Diabate's and Ballate Sissoko's fathers as a kora (Manding harp) duet. A generation later, a dearly-held dream has come true as he plays that tune and eleven others from Mali and America with Toumani, plus a consort of first-rate West African players.

Representing Toumani's Jali (hereditary troubadour) lineage are his longtime associate and fellow kora maestro, Battake Sissoko; plus Bassekou Kouyate on bass and ngoni (a small lute-like ancestor of the banjo), and Lasana Diabate on the balafon (Manding xylophone), whose tuning resembles that of a blues guitar. The brilliant singer Kassymady Diabate is the "Jali's Jali" and his flexible, impassioned baritone and elegant delivery contrast with Taj's warmly earthy, more human-sounding pipes.

Musicians from the rural Wassoulou province in Southern Mali are descended from hunters who were also moral arbiters and healers. Their sound can have a mean, funky swing and often employs pentatonic scales. While over ninety percent of the musicians from the area are women, Dougouye Koulibaly is a man. He plays the kamalengoni, a small hunters' harp which has seldom, if ever, been heard with a kora. The husky-sweet-voiced singer, Ramatou Diakite, displays tact bordering on diplomacy and amazing versatility everywhere she appears.

It is the collaboration between the Jalis and the Wassoulou performers that raises Kulanjan above many of the currently available Mali-music-plus-or-versus-the-Blues explorations. Taj Mahal has aligned the Blues with the two other styles, but was civilized enough to allow each tradition to shine on its own terms. The result is as welcoming and relaxed as a three-way family embrace. Christina Roden

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