Friday, July 6, 2012

Gig: Mansa Sissoko

Mansa Sissoko (Pasi Gunguwo + Mutamba Rainos)

Gladstone Hotel (Melody Bar). Friday, June 3, 2011.

Out to The Gladstone for another instalment of Batuki's then-monthly residency.1 Programmer Nadine McNulty always loves to encourage creative cross-currents, so it's no surprise that a night of Malian kora music was preceded by a brief set of Zimbabwean mbira tunes, courtesy of Pasi Gunguwo and Mutamba Rainos. I'd previously caught them playing as a part of the larger, now-defunct Masaisai, and as a duo, the pair are still exploring the Zezuru folk music tradition. Their first piece was introduced as a prayer: "when we play this music we are connecting, just like a telephone, to connect with the ancestors." And while all that might make it sound like a sober exercise, the execution is always joyful: celebrating and dancing are also perfectly reasonable ways to connect with the ancestors. Although there's a hypnotizingly trace-y undertone to their gorgeous interlocking mbira rhythms and vocal accompaniments, the pair really are happiest when they motivate folks to get up and move some.

Listen to a song from Pasi + Mutamba here.

That quick set got the crowd in a receptive frame of mind for Mansa Sissoko. Based in Montréal, Sissoko comes from a Malian griot family, but his work isn't strictly limited to that tradition. A master of the tricky 21-stringed kora, he was joined for this set by bala player Kassoum Diamoutene. The set began with some quieter stuff, the kora and balafon sort of rubbing up against each other a bit and establishing the space they were working together in. Generally, the kora danced around melodically, while the balafon took more deliberate rhythmic steps. Musically, this took a few minutes to "click" for me, to get into the headspace of that mix of the easily musical and slightly dissonant that comes with listening to something in an unusual tuning system.

After a spell, they were joined by fellow griot Katenen 'Cheka' Dioubate on vocals, and the structure fell into place a bit more regularly around her vocal lines. Her smiling presence also provided a bit more of a focus as she wished good luck upon the women in the crowd in "Khaira".

Listen to a couple songs from this show — one with Pasi & Mutamba and one with Cheka Dioubate — here.

Following a break, there were second sets with both combos, Gunguwo and Rainos now joined by former Masaisai bandmate Tich Maredza on percussion. "It's so nice to see happy people," was the comment as they provided a bouncy rhythm to encourage more people to get up and dance.

Sissoko returned to the stage and played one long, slightly drifting, song — in one sense, this was almost wilfully "background" music, loosely unfolding, and potentially grooving along forever, rather than being focused on the "song".

Then there was an attempt to sew all the night's elements together with the mbiras joining in for a jam session. They set up while Sissoko was singing, and then, when they were ready, Sissoko turned the song with a "ha!", ramped up the tempo and let everyone play together. It took a couple minutes for everything to fall into sync, and there was an interesting spark for a couple minutes before Gunguwo and Rainos eased off. After regrouping, they found a groove in a longer song.

To close, Cheka Dioubate returned to sing again. Closing out the night's impromptu vibe, Ruth Mathiang also stepped up onto the stage to add her voice as well as everything came to a close. All told, an interesting night — all of these musicians are so skilled that it's interesting to let them mix it up in different combinations and watch the creative sparks fly. Eventually, though, the breeze coming through the front door starting growing cooler, and the room was getting crowded as the karaoke crowd began to filter in. And as the set finished, it was still early enough that I could head up he street for another show.

1 Shifting gears and venues, Batuki's Friday programme at Gladstone has now transformed into Africa Up Close, taking over the NOW Lounge on Church Street on the first Friday of every month. That means there's a show tonight (Friday, July 6, 2012), and it features the "South Sudanese soul" of Ruth Mathiang. The room sounds a little nicer, and the trade-off for the cover charge ($10) is that you'll be among an audience who is on hand to listen to the music, and not just treat it as a background distraction while looking fashionable at The Gladstone and waiting for the karaoke to begin.

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