I wish I could say I was some sort of expert on world music, but the sad truth is I’m not. Every time I roll into a record store feeling awesome about picking up an album by some obscure sitar player, I inevitably walk out with literally dozens of new artists added to my future-purchases list that I’ve never heard of. The long and short of it: this isn’t going to be an article on the ethnomusicology of West Africa. All I can do is recommend one of my favorite world music releases from the last couple decades based solely on the fact that it sounds good to my ears. Damn good.
New Ancient Strings is a collaboration between Toumani Diabaté and Ballaké Sissoko, two great kora players that play great together. The kora is a massive 21 string harp made from gourd, cowhide, and wood that is widely used in West Africa. It’s played with bare fingers and has a massive range, making it a captivating instrument for solo performance. Diabaté and Sissoko gathered in Bamako, Mali on September 22, 1997, almost forty years after Mali’s independence, and cut this entire album in one sitting. The virtuosity of this album is apparent from the opening notes of “Bi Lambam” and doesn’t let up for an entire hour as these two trade mind boggling phrases with what sounds like casual ease. But the real miracle of this album is that it never sacrifices its emotional tone for mindless kora wanking. Every note feels like it has a place, and both musicians provide excellent foundations for the others fingers to glide all over. This might not be the deepest cut of African music you’ve ever heard but I guarantee it can find an audience among almost any listener, something not many world music albums can boast.