Kora Jazz Band, trio times two
Bridging two cultures
After producing three albums as a trio, the Kora Jazz Band has doubled its numbers and taken on Manu Dibango, Andy Narell and Omar Marquez for its latest collection. An album overshadowed by bereavement following the death of kora player Soriba Kouyaté a few days after recording ended.
It was in the West of Africa, in Dakar, that the Kora Jazz Trio sprung up, initiated by Abdoulaye Diabaté. "At the time I was leading the National Orchestra of Senegal with 66 musicians,” reminisces the pianist, who was already attracted to jazz and spent many a night playing the piano in a big hotel. “Jazz didn’t come straight from my world, I used to play by repeating what I’d heard. I don’t think I understood all the notions of harmony, counterpoint and improvisation,” he now admits. “It was only later, when I won a French grant to study music at the CIM* in Paris that I got a chance to really get to the depths of it."
Diabaté, the son of a balafon player and a griot, consolidated his skills thanks to the teaching he received from organist, pianist and composer Emmanuel Bex. “In Dakar, with Soriba Kouyaté, we used to play covers of Charlie Parker or other big jazz names like Coltrane and Chick Corea. We’d work out the notes together, it became a bit of a challenge.”
The emotion and grief is perceptible when Abdoulaye talks about Soriba. The Kora player died a year ago, a few days after they finished recording. They were “two brothers” says Abdoulaye Diabaté. "My father used to play with his father. My two elder sisters married his two uncles. My father convinced his father to let him play the kora. When I listen to the disk, he’s saying goodbye to me. He had a feeling he would be leaving us. Often he would say to me: ‘If we don’t see each other, could you do such and such for my mother…’ which is why this album is totally dedicated to him.”
Africa and jazz
For the pianist, the relationship between West African traditional music and jazz is not just a game to amuse gifted musicians, but a deep-seated affinity: “It was with the musicians of the National Orchestra of Senegal, the best instrumentalists in the country, that I was able to highlight the ties that link these two types of music. The kamele ngoni, the harp lute played by the young Fula from Wassoulou, is played on a pentatonic scale; the xalam, a small West African lute, strums out jazz harmonies. It’s clearly music that appeals to our ears. At the same time, it’s difficult to convince our parents to go and buy a record by Thelonious Monk,” he recognizes. “That’s why we thought it was vital to build bridges and for example, use the sound of the kora, which is well known to us, to give people a way to approach a repertoire that’s actually closely linked to our patrimony. That’s all Kora Jazz is!”
From trio to combo
Abdoulaye Diabaté likes the instantaneousness of jazz, the way it bubbles up. “It’s something that you also find in music in my country. We do a recording in three or four days, the live aspect is vital, and so is getting together with people,” he comments. Which is what pushed him to invite a few friends into the studio this time. “Manu Dibango goes back a long way, right from the first album he wanted to do something with us. So this time, I asked him to come along, but not on the sax, on the marimba. Few people know it, but Manu is a great marimba player. I asked him to play All Blues by Miles Davis. It was in the bag in barely an hour.”
Rapidity and efficiency: the same can be said for Andy Narell and his steel pan. “I discovered Andy on the radio in Senegal. I was impressed by the metallic sounds his instrument made and I wanted to do something with it. I thought of Oyé Como va by Tito Puente, a track that the timbales player Omar Marquez joined us on. I met Omar through Africando during a replacement in Gabon. That’s what a musician’s life is like. It’s true that we were good when there were three of us, but now we’re six, we’re even better,” he laughs. In the space of twelve tracks, the double dose of energy is impressive.
Kora Jazz Band, Kora Jazz Band (Celluloid) 2011
Concert on 20 October at the New Morning (Paris), then dates in Guyana, Dakar, Canada, Israel, in a trio or with guests.
*Parisian jazz school
Translation by: Anne-Marie Harper