To Africa, to Home

Taj Mahal and Toumani Diabate bridge the Delta and Mali with their gorgeous new album, Kulanjan

The historical roots of the Delta blues in West African culture have been yanked from the soil, washed, and thoroughly stewed by rock historians, but that hasn't kept world-music dabblers from perpetually hunting for homeland antecedents. Take the Putumayo label's recent From Mali to Memphis, which sets continental griots alongside U.S. bluesmen for compare/contrast games. It's a fun, educational listen, in a PBS sort of way, and demonstrates some correlation in styles. But it also shows how dissimilar the art of Boubacar Traoré is from Muddy Waters, and how the shorthand of ethnomusicology can be put to the service of a simple-minded universalism that does all the musicians concerned a disservice.

But the slippery logic of art can convince the listener to hear the echo of Africa in the Americas--particularly when it slides off the tongue of someone like Taj Mahal. Raised in Massachusetts by a gospel singer from South Carolina and a jazz arranger from the West Indies, Taj is best described as a citizen of the diaspora. It's a realm to which he appointed himself ambassador three decades ago, plucking country-blues derivatives for acculturated hippies. But where most of his American contemporaries have carted their recording equipment and patronizing curiosity to the Southern Hemisphere, Mahal has lately welcomed Africans as guests here in the States. For his latest album, he invited seven musicians from Mali and Guinea to record in Athens, Georgia, including one bona fide Malian star: Toumani Diabate, virtuoso of the kora, a 21-string harp-lute. The resulting collaboration, Kulanjan (Hannibal), is effortlessly gorgeous. Perhaps Mahal was instinctively aware that any whiff of sweat or show of strain would doom the fusion, revealing it to be a kind of self-conscious experiment.

Still, the project could very well have fallen flat on its kamelengoni. Though Mahal's back catalog is as omnivorous as it is uneven--it encompasses Pointer Sisters collaborations, an affair with a tuba ensemble, and a descent into "The Banana Boat Song"--the performer has rarely ventured stylistically across the Atlantic. He once collaborated with the fleet-fingered Ali Farka Toure, after which the haughty Malian publicly denigrated Mahal's playing, calling the American "very tiring." Taj was a willing pupil, Toure noted with Old World condescension, before telling writer Richard Trillo, "It's not that he understands what I sing. He can't. No."

Stuck inside of Memphis with the Mali blues again: Taj Mahal (back row, center), Toumani Diabate (front, center), and band
Stuck inside of Memphis with the Mali blues again: Taj Mahal (back row, center), Toumani Diabate (front, center), and band

Nor was harpist Diabate a sure shot for a gritty blues meld. His latest disc, New Ancient Strings, spins ornate kora curlicues that evaporate from memory almost upon leaving the speakers, a telling reminder that the longtime popularity of Malian music among American easy-listeners owes much to the near-Celtic tenor of this fragile harp-lute. Paired with Sahel singers so self-serious they make Keb' Mo' sound like Flavor Flav, Diabate's brittle harp suggests a B-movie overture to the gates of heaven, perfect for harried Westerners accustomed to using Third World music as the sonic equivalent of aromatherapy.

When Kulanjan succeeds, which it does most of the time, it's because Mahal seeks a broad stylistic affinity with Diabate rather than a cultural symmetry. From the opening of "Queen Bee," in which Diabate surrounds Mahal's rolling guitar riff with a flurry of kora, it sounds like the duo hasn't set out to recapture a unified past. The two men instead explore ways to ford slight rifts between their styles. For example, the finger techniques each man employs may have similarities, but no acoustic guitar is ever plucked with the crisp severity of the kora. And the track "Catfish Blues" expertly highlights the difference between a bent blue note and an Arabic half-tone.

Further, no American blues is this relentlessly hypnotic. Structurally, the blues always journeys forth before returning home, however many bars it employs. By contrast, the African flow of Kulanjan wanders off indefinitely into the sandstorm, while Mahal provides the sure melody of a guitarist who has spent extended stretches of his career without a rhythm section. The two-chord piano rocker "Fanta" even finds him hitting his best Professor Longhair stride. The song is a Maninka cakewalk, and might make you wish that all New Orleans ensembles featured the balafon, a Malian xylophone.

Nor are these cultural conversations conducted merely between American and Malian tongues. The title track combines different African forms, bridging the high Mande griot tradition with the low-rent hunter's style known as Wassalou. And while the female vocals stretch to the East from their seeming Arabic roots, you can hear an urbane European humidity in the aching tenor of Kassemedy Diabate, perhaps acquired during his self-imposed exile in Paris.

Both Mali's muezzin wail and the Delta's lonesome croak sound less mournful here than wistful. The disc closes with "Sahara," a desert with vastly different associations for Mahal and his Malian guests. For a few minutes the plaintive bluesman seems to long not just for a heritage but for a specific home country. It's as if the diaspora's ambassador suddenly felt like its orphan, pining for a point of origin.

 
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