Chamber Music by Ballake Sissoko and Vincent Segal
Review by Doug Heselgrave
There was a time when the release of a new cross-cultural musical collaboration was treated as if it was a rare and fragile exotic occurrence that by virtue of its very existence was judged to be something special. In retrospect, perhaps this was a necessary allowance on the part of writers who were attempting to break new ground by broadening the palettes of an audience with relatively limited exposure to sounds that fell outside of the radio mainstream.
Many people trace the beginnings of world music back to the nineteen sixties when the Beatles’ early championing of Ravi Shankar brought classical Indian music into western consciousness. Others embrace Bob Marley as the first third world superstar who opened people’s ears to the possibility that topical rhythm based music could enjoy more than simple novelty appeal. But, it really wasn’t until the 1980’s that true cross cultural collaborations began to appear regularly in pop music. (In the classical world, violinist Yehudi Menuhin’s two collaborations with Ravi Shankar drew mixed reviews with critics rightly asserting that the music the two created didn’t really represent a true synthesis of each artist’s style. Rather, Shankar and Menuhin simply added innocuous textures to standard works in each musician’s existing repertoire)
The Talking Heads’ ‘Fear of Music’ and ‘Remain in Light’ as well as Paul Simon’s celebrated ‘Graceland’ are the albums that are often heralded as releases that broke new ground in this area. These albums have endured, and whatever beefs purists may have raised over the years, without such endeavours the African rhythms, Balkan beats, and Cuban melodies that can be heard almost everywhere in pop music would still be a rarity.
It is an encouraging sign of the maturity of the world music scene to see that a critical community has grown up around it. Over the years, North American and European music writers and listeners have become well versed in non-western rhythms and compositional forms and have become capable of critically assessing them on their own terms. Thankfully, the political correctness and cultural baggage that often obscured reviews and clear headed assessment in the past has all but disappeared from world music journalism.
This is – of course – a necessary advancement because truthfully not all of these types of collaborations work. Often, as in the case of the Shankar-Menuhin albums, the musical scales are tilted far to one side which reduces the musical contributions of one of the parties involved to the level of window dressing or unnecessary adornment. There are more ‘world music’ albums from traditional artists that feature meaningless guest appearances by a rock or jazz musician – in an effort to bolster sales or attract attention – than could be listed here. Similarly, over the years, musicians like Sarah McLaughlin, Sting and Van Morrison have felt it necessary to load koras, tablas and sitars onto songs for no apparent reason, with the effect of further muddying the waters of true musical synthesis.
Over the last decade, many truly breath taking albums in this new genre have been released, but none of them are more interesting – and flat out beautiful – than the stunning ‘Chamber Music’ created by the Malian kora master, Ballake Sissoko and French cellist Vincent Segal – who also plays for the trip hop ensemble, Bumcello.
Recorded in three sessions with no overdubs at Salif Keita’s state of the art studio in Bamako, Mali, ‘Chamber Music’ works precisely because of the balance the two men find in each other’s playing. Both Sissoko and Seagal take turns writing compositions and the results reveal that the pair have mastered that most essential – and elusive – quality of knowing how to listen to each other. Whether they’re exploring a traditional kora melody or soaring through a cello based composition in a classical style, the two men find shared sounds, scales and counterpoints that complement each other’s playing. The simple melodies that ground each piece of music often mask the beguilingly complex interactions between the two instruments as even within the same song the cello and the kora switch imperceptibly between playing leads and rhythm or backbeat. In every case, the virtuosity that both Sissoko and Segal display is always at the service of the song. Nothing they play is ever flashy or needlessly complex.
‘Chamber Music’ offers a welcome change from many of the world music albums I’ve heard recently. Whereas much of what currently passes for world music collaboration these days falls under the category of electronica – with technology acting as the mediator between cultures – the music created by Sissoko and Segal is quiet and refined. It is confident to be what it is without the needless interventions of electronic textures, percussion or guitars trying to make the music more palatable for western ears.
I have listened to ‘Chamber Music’ at least once a day for the last six weeks, and rather than getting tired of it, I still find myself hearing something new in the delicate tapestries woven through the musical conversations that flow effortlessly through Sissoko and Segal’s instruments. Listening through it again as I write this, I still find it almost impossible to conceive that two people could create music of such breath taking beauty. In terms of pure melodic perfection and compositional clarity, ‘Chamber Music’ is the most engaging and captivating recording I’ve heard in a long, long time.
This posting also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
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