Kairaba! is born out of the sounds of Senegal

by Ryan Snyder

There`s a song on Resonance, the debut album by Diali Cissokho & Kairaba!, entitled “Mali Sadio” that’s based on the griot’s legend of an enchanted hippopotamus that offers peace to the Malian village of Bafoulabe in exchange for a marriage to one woman’s astoundingly beautiful daughter. The story goes that harmless gossip turned to outright jealousy over time, and the men of the village sought to kill the animal, which in turn brought great hardships to the village. The lesson? Nothing good can come from talking excessively about other people, whether good or bad. The existence of Kairaba! (pronounced kai-ra-bah, meaning “the great peace”) disputes its claim, however. Without the name Diali Cissokho (pronounced Jeh-li See-so-ho) ringing out in some music circles, the captivating African fusionists might not have come to be.

Cissokho, who emigrated around two years ago after marrying Hilary Stewart while the Pittsboro native was studying abroad, calls Kairaba! a “happy accident.” The 29-year-old kora master and griot (storyteller) Cissokho hails from a celebrated, centuries-old lineage of kora players — if asked, he’ll say he comes from the kora — and sought to make ends performing. He was instantly legitimized in the eyes of the esteemed Charles Davis, or Baba Chuck, of the African American Dance Ensemble in Durham after performing a particularly old piece uncommon to younger players. “It was a song before my father brung life. It is an old song,” Cissokho said. “Baba Chuck asked me, ‘How you know this song? How you play this? You are so young.’ I said, ‘I got a good memory.’” It was just one among the countless traditional pieces that Cissokho had been absorbing from his father Ibrahima Cissokho, who was once the personal griot to the first president of Senegal, since he was four years old. Then, his name spread. Will Ridenhour, who had designs on forming a dance group with world influences along with fellow Paperhand Puppet Intervention bandmate Austin McCall, sought him out after hearing there was another kora player in the area. Drummer McCall had already established a musical relationship with Cissokho, practicing as a trio with guitarist John Westmoreland, by the time Ridenhour joined as band percussionist. Bassist Jonathan Henderson would later round out the quintet.

Mostly rooted in jazz and R&B, no one else in the group save for Ridenhour had been specifically schooled in African music, but Cissokho would establish himself as a powerful gravitational force as he pulled the other members into creative orbit around him. He gave Westmoreland albums by his favorite African artist, the Afropop singer Salif Keita, whose Berklee instruction allowed him to quickly adapt to the taxing fluidity that is demanded of a counter melody to the kora. They were a band now, which in Cissokho’s eyes means they are essentially a family. Even though Kairaba! is centered on Cissokho’s stern devotion to the traditional sounds of Senegal and he insists they could never teach him something new about kora, he does listen to American ideas about things like intonation and tuning.

“In Africa, we don’t use tuners. We use memory. You know what sound you want,” he stated. “The sound doesn’t change to you, but it can change to others.”

Several of the 11 tracks on Resonance show Cissokho making personal stylistic concessions in regard for that familial mentality. The second sound heard on the opening track “Kaira,” after Cissokho’s kora, is the salient flourish of the band’s part-time horn section. Cissokho himself is adamant in saying that there are no horns in his own personal style, but if Kairaba! wants them as a part of their musical conversation, then so be it.

“I like culture. I like tradition,” he said. “We say,’Okay, we are family, we make a band together.’ When someone says, ‘I don’t like that,’ and others say, ‘Yes I do like it,’ what can I say? It’s just me; I have to say yes. I love horns, but I don’t hear it in my sound.”

There is a home for horns within Resonance’s veneration of the kora, however. The elegance of their interpretation of “Mali Sadio” is a function of Cissokho’s gritty, soulful croon in his native Mandinka tongue, the torrent of pirouetting kora notes and the smooth, brassy bridges that tie it all together amidst self-aware polyrhythms. Produced by Scott Solter (Mike Patton, Mountain Goats), the album is layers upon layers of complex, swinging melodies and moral treatises of ancient origin. The title of the album implicitly refers to the ringing sound of the kora, but there’s ancillary meaning and cross-cultural application there as well. Cissokho’s original narratives and tales from his forbearer’s generations reverberate with tremendous currency. As long as people continue talking about him, they will remain that way.

Diali Cissokho & Kairaba! will perform at the Third Annual Mosaic Festival on Saturday at Festival Park in Greensboro.