Saturday, December 11, 2010

‘CHAMBER MUSIC’ by Ballake’ Sissoko and Vincent Segal- Mind Over Music

It had to happen sooner or later… that world music would produce a successful collaboration of African classical with Western classical music. After all, there have been collaborations of world music with almost everything else western- rock, pop, folk, hiphop, you name it. But classical? Surely the two traditions are too disparate to merely ‘mash up’ in any meaningful way. I myself didn’t think it could be done. African artists, however masterful, just seemed too self-taught and out of the mainstream of Western music. This seemed painfully clear watching Vieux Toure’ in a jam with other world musicians on a workshop stage at Edmonton Folk Festival a few years ago. It just didn’t fit, so it didn’t work very well. Even if they play in the same keys and tune their instruments the same, the relationship between the people and the music is fundamentally different… isn’t it? Maybe not. Maybe it’s just a matter of combining the right musicians in the right situation.

If ‘Chamber Music’, the new album by Ballake’ Sissoko and Vincent Segal is any indication, then the possibilities are infinite. Ironically the concepts of ‘chamber music’ and ‘world music’ are about equally undefined and undefinable, chamber music being closely associated with ‘classical music’, though smaller- capable of being played in a chamber, or room- the string quarter maybe being the most obvious example of the concept. ‘World music’, on the other hand, can mean almost anything. My own garbled definition vaguely describes it as ‘music of other styles and other languages’ than the predominant Anglo-American established genres… which could be almost anything.

The concept of ‘African music’ is even more misleading, usually almost equally divided between Afro-pop and African roots music, a genre which usually includes the kind of griot/djeli kora-based music of the type that Sissoko plays, kora being the long necked string instrument played extending outward from the griot’s lap, something quite a bit different from Segal’s cello. Maybe it’s time to re-think the difference between roots music and Western art music, the broad category to which all Western classical music belongs. Perhaps, like language, all popular forms of music ultimately derive from more structured forms, from which they deviate and ultimately re-invent.

The opening title song sets the tone nicely, cajoling and teasing and soaring to uncertain heights, just begging you to surrender and let go of your preconceptions. The second song ‘Oscarine’ shows the other side of their collaboration, the slow moody side, which may just be what they share most in common, apart from the mastery of their instruments. All the songs are written either by Sissoko or Segal individually, but I’d challenge you to guess which without referring to the credits. The songwriter’s instrument may be more prominently featured on his own songs, but never overwhelms. That calculated moodiness in fact defines the overall tome of the album.

Both artists are comfortable and competent whether the song in question is solemn or upbeat. They’re all a bit dramatic and suspenseful regardless. One song, ‘Regret’, a tribute to Sissoko’s friend Kader Berry, even has words, supplied courtesy of Sissoko’s fellow compatriot Awa Sangho. Other than that they’re all purely instrumental, with instruments in addition to Sissok’s kora and Segal’s cello contributed to suit the mood and the music. All in all it’s one inspiring effort.

On second thought, I’m not sure whether I’m ready to admit that the two traditions are merely flip sides of one and the same thing. I’d be more ready to allow that these are two extraordinarily well-traveled and well-disciplined masters, who have found in each other’s music something to complement their own. They play as two hands from the same mind, a mind that they’ve cultivated in each other’s company along the banks of the Niger River in Bamako, and in concert halls in Paris. The fruit of their creativity is the music itself. It’s called simply ‘Chamber music’. Check it out.

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