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kora players who can't sing very well

PostPosted: Fri Dec 01, 2006 4:23 pm
by Charlie
I'm not sure when I first heard the sound of a kora, but I do remember that everything changed in 1983 when I brought home an album by Djeli Moussa Diawara I found at Sterns African records Centre soon after the shop moved under new management from Tottenham Court Road to Whitfield Street.

Onely four songs, all of them long, and I played this entrancing thing over and over, marvelling at the mixture of kora and guitar, the soaring voice of Moussa and the dreamy answering chorus of women. The endless circles of sound from the balaphon were hypnotising.

I played all four songs on Capital Radio, and found that listeners were as enchanted as I was.

In those optimisitic, pioneering days, I still believed that such music was bound for the mainstream, if it were pushed with the right combination of enthusiasm and initiative, and this seemed to be the record that might make a breakthrough. Hoping to release it on Oval, I tried to make contact with the owner of the recording.

It had been recorded by an independent producer based in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, but an American called Albert based in Paris seemed to be the man who could say yes. But despite a couple of friendly and positive phone calls, he remained very elusive when we tried to pin anything down on paper. And where were the master tapes? Eventually we worked everything out through an Englishman based in Woking called Mike Wells.

Lucy Duran, at that time a member of staff of the British Sound Archive who was rapidly emerging as one of the world's leading experts on West African music, recommeneded that we anglicise the phonetic spelling of the artist's name, so we released it as being by Jali Musa Jawara.

Now that the record as on Oval, I wasn't able to play it on Capital (nobody said I couldn't, but I knew it would be bad news if I did). I don't think Andy Kershaw was on Radio One yet, so there was no obvious radio outlet. John Peel played it once or twice.

Ian Anderson, editor of Folk Roots, was extremely supportive, giving it a rave-of-the century review and running it as a competition prize,.

One way or another we sold over 3,000 copies, pretty good going in those days. We had two distributors: Making Waves specialsied in folk, blues and related fields (the term world music had not yet been coined), while Pinnnacle was an across-the-board merchant. We heard rumours that Pinnacle was on the verge of being closed down, so I drove down to Orpington to pick up the cheque for our royalties. But when we put it in the bank, it bounced. They had gone under, overnight. As bad as that was, it got worse a few days later when Making Waves went bankrupt too. Not only did we not get any money for the records sold, but we were not allowed to take out from their stock the unsold records that we had paid all the manufacturing costs for. The receivers kept them, sold them off for next-to-nothing, and the new buyers then sold them at the normal price, with none of the proceeds coming back to us. The experience ended Oval's brief involvement in African music. But if we shuddered at losing a few thousand pounds, Ace Records suffered are worse, being owed over a million pounds. I couldn't imagine how a company could keep going after that, but they not not only kept going, they prospered.

A year or so later, Andy McDonald of Go Discs got in touch, having been introduced to the Jali Musa Jawara record by Billy Bragg. Incidentally, a young member of staff at the label was the porky poet, Phill Jupitus, who still remembers the album fondly. Released under the title Direct from West Africa, the album benefitted from the artist's first visit to the UK, part of a double bill with Ali Farka Toure organised by World Circuit, who recorded new albums by both artists. Neither Ali or Moussa had heard of each other, and both were insulted to be bracketed with an unknown imposter. Taking turns to headline on consecutive nights at the QEH and Hackney Empire, they each tried to outdo the other, and the result was a memorable double tie.

Having been introduced to the concept of a singing kora player with Jali Musa's masterpeice, I have never found anybody else who comes even close. His brother Mory Kante is probably the nearest contender, but his records tended to feature too many keyboards and programmed drums. Dembo Konte from Gambia is from the old school, his rough-and-ready vocals no match for the beauty of Jali Musa's.

Stirred by Con Murphy's cover feature in fRoots on Sekou Keita, I went back to the CD that I had not been able to get to the end of the first time I listened. But nothing had changed - he's a fine kora player but his voice is weak, he just isn't a singer. I have the same problem with Ba Sissokho - exciting music, weak singing. Same again with the undrecorded UK-based kora player from Casamance, Southern Senegal, Kadialy Kouyate, whose duet performances with the Paraguayan harp player Kike Pederson are so interesting and ingenious; Kadialy doesn't have a strong enough voice to match their music.

I think it's a problem of expectation - as beautiful as the sound of the kora is, we want to hear a voice too. Even the kora genius Toumani Diabate fell for it at one time. Having made his solo masterpeice, Kaira, he later tried singing, but fortunately he realised he was never going to make it, and he brought in others to do the vocals. That's the way to do it. The one track I like on Seckou Keita's album features a female singer. Make her part of the band, Seckou, and have her sing all the vocals.

PostPosted: Fri Dec 01, 2006 5:11 pm
by Con Murphy
I still treasure my two copies of the Djeli Moussa Diawara/Jali Musa Jawara album, the original and the Oval release. I must have bought the former from Sterns myself as a result of hearing it on Charlie's show (can’t think who else would have played it back then). That means I was 17 or 18 when I bought it, which seems hard to believe now. Haidara is still a desert-island track for me, one of the songs that I would pick out as an example of what I like most about music, for all the reasons mentioned above. I didn’t realise there was a third version of the LP around – if I was more of an anorak, I’d seek it out.

As for Seckou Keita: thanks for taking the time to read the article, Charlie, and for giving the CD another go as a result. I agree that possibly the best track on the album features Binta Susso’s singing, but personally I think Sekou’s found a way round the limitations of his own voice in the way he’s developed the songs. But I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on that one. I’ll leave it to others to come up with the technical, historical, ethnomusicological, physiological or just plain illogical reasons why there aren’t (m)any great kora-playing singers (or singing kora-players).

PostPosted: Fri Dec 01, 2006 5:12 pm
by Des
I can't think of any really great singers among kora players either. As I understand it, the tradition is that kora players are usually not expected to sing; their role (along with balafon and n'goni players) is to provide accompaniment to the praise singers (djelis) who in turn rarely master any instruments themselves but concentrate entirely on their extraordinary vocal delivery.

I think a well-played solo kora can sound positively orchestral and (as in Toumani's album Kaira) totally satisfying without a vocal contribution. Call me pretentious but the instrument takes on a role similar to a solo piano in Bach's Goldberg Variations or Well-Tempered Clavier i.e. any additional instruments would be superfluous.

I played the Ba Cissoko CD again last night and agree the weakest aspect is the singing.

PostPosted: Fri Dec 01, 2006 6:06 pm
by Charlie
Con Murphy wrote: I didn’t realise there was a third version of the LP around – if I was more of an anorak, I’d seek it out.

Save up your pennies, Con, because after Go Discs dropped the baton, Joe Boyd picked it up for Hannibal, putting the album out for the third time in the UK.

PostPosted: Fri Dec 01, 2006 8:13 pm
by Ian M
This sounds fascinating, but I can't quite get the title of the album, or if it is available anymore.

PostPosted: Fri Dec 01, 2006 9:14 pm
by Con Murphy
*Anorak alert*

Ian, it initially came out on Celluloid of Paris (looks like I got mine from somewhere called Nomad Records in NW1, not Sterns) and was simply entitled Djeli Moussa Diawara ("eponymous" I think the NME used to call it).

Then as Charlie says, Oval Anglicised the name to Jali Musa Jawara . I'm playing it now, and boy does it still sound great. Hard to find it anywhere on the 'net, but here's that Hannibal version (entitled Yasimika) on Amazon at an absolutely stupid price:-

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Yasimika-Jali-M ... F8&s=music

I seem to recall it sometimes also got titled Fote Mogoban after the opening track. Good luck searching!

I dug out the follow-up Soubindoor while searching for the LP. It came out on World Circuit and should be easier to find, I would have thought. I seem to recall that being pretty good as well, if not quite as exhilarating. Some bloke called Nick Gold was one of the people who mixed it. I wonder what happened to him?

PostPosted: Fri Dec 01, 2006 9:34 pm
by NormanD
I just dug out my Oval LP copy to see if there was a price tag on it to show where I bought it. It may have come from Zippo Records in Clapham, a store for great finds. Maybe I read a review of it somewhere and bought it blind? Or perhaps I heard it on Andy Kershaw's show which was on Radio 1 in 1986.

I have to give some words of criticism: it has one of the worst covers I've come across. The graphics and poor colour contrast make the sleeve notes almost illegible and even the label writing is hard to decipher. (I notice that the fRoots annual round-up now has a category of "best packaging". Jali Musa Jawara would not be a contender.) A great, influential album, however.

Norman

PostPosted: Fri Dec 01, 2006 9:58 pm
by judith
Con Murphy wrote:*Anorak alert*


What is an anorak? Not the garment, but how the word is used here. I've wondered for a long time. Oh, I've a glimmer but, after the education I received on this forum about slang - well, more specifically, swearing - am concerned I might not have the jist of it... the usage of Anorak.

respectfully,
Judith

PostPosted: Fri Dec 01, 2006 10:31 pm
by Ian M
Thanks, Con. £62 is a bit steep, but it sounds ripe for a reissue.

Judith:

anorak: 1. British: A person obsessively interested in a thing or topic that doesn't seem to warrant such attention. Nerdy, anal, collector, obsessive cataloguer.

Also known as a trainspotter, a British middle aged man who you will find at the end of platforms, wearing invariably an anorak, writing down train numbers in his notebook as they come and go. His goal: to collect as many train numbers as possible.

PostPosted: Fri Dec 01, 2006 10:42 pm
by judith
Ian M wrote:anorak

...Also known as a trainspotter


Thanks Ian. Got it. Both words. Both humorous

PostPosted: Sat Dec 02, 2006 1:18 am
by Charlie
normand wrote: it has one of the worst covers I've come across. The graphics and poor colour contrast make the sleeve notes almost illegible and even the label writing is hard to decipher. Norman

This is the second time that the album sleeeve has come in for criticism, and it may not be the last.

Although Oval didn't put many records out, we never settled on the same designer for very long. We were lucky to have Neville Brody do some sleeves for us that worked well, and Peter Knipe's designs have always been clear with a distinctive look.

But for this album I got in touch with a designer who had done some good sleeves for Globestyle Records, and gave him a brief that our sleeve should bring to mind the look of Ocora's records, using a wide black frame around the image on the front, and stressing that the text should be clear to read.

It turned out we had hit this guy in the midst of a pile of other work. But, like most free-lancers, he couldn't bear to turn the job down, he just put our job off for so long that by the time he delivered his draft design we were literally only days away from our deadline if we were to hit the release date we had agreed with distributors. His design bore no relation to my brief, and I was worried that the text was hard to read.

I can't recall the exact sequence of events any more, having tried to blot the experience from every level of memory from easily retrievable to the deepest subsconcious. The designer reassured us that it would be fine when it came from the printer and I cried when the final sleeve came through - horrible colours and unreadable text, ruining the first impression of an album that contained such beautiful music inside.

Should we have delayed the release until the New Year, and gone back to the starting line with a different designer? All I know is, we didn't, and those bankrupt companies made us question the whole idea of putting records out ourselves.

It was a long time before we did it again. 21 years, to be exact. 'What...is in Between?' by David Lowe''s Dreamcatcher came out on 23rd October, and has so far had barely any ariplay and not a single review, despite being represented to the press by the man who does Mariza and Camiile. So we are back at the beginning, starting at the bottom of another mountain, looking for a way to start pushing another boulder up its slopes. But at least we have a good sleeve this time.

PostPosted: Sun Dec 03, 2006 10:20 am
by judith
Charlie wrote: 'What...is in Between?' by David Lowe''s Dreamcatcher came out on 23rd October, and has so far had barely any ariplay and not a single review


I found one Charlie, written by Wyl Menmuir

http://www.fly.co.uk/fly/archives/europ ... _what.html

PostPosted: Sun Dec 03, 2006 12:55 pm
by howard male
And there should be one from me in next month's Word (out in the second week of Dec.)

PostPosted: Tue Dec 19, 2006 12:56 pm
by joel
Con Murphy wrote:I still treasure my two copies of the Djeli Moussa Diawara/Jali Musa Jawara album, the original and the Oval release. I must have bought the former from Sterns myself as a result of hearing it on Charlie's show (can’t think who else would have played it back then).

Alexis K? Although maybe 1983 is too late for Alexis. How time flies.
I also remember picking up the same album from sterns around that time. I'm sure this is not a phantom memory, although the evidence is likely to have long since turned to mold in my mum's garage.

Soubindoor by Jali Musa Jawara

PostPosted: Wed Jun 30, 2010 10:38 pm
by Chris P
Con Murphy wrote:I dug out the follow-up Soubindoor while searching for the LP. It came out on World Circuit and should be easier to find, I would have thought. I seem to recall that being pretty good as well, if not quite as exhilarating. Some bloke called Nick Gold was one of the people who mixed it. I wonder what happened to him?


the artist formerly known as Jali Musa Jawara (now Djeli Moussa Diawara) was being discussed as a (rare) example of a kora player with a great singing voice (Ablaye Cissoko is another).
I've finally got myself a copy of Soubindoor and it is not pretty good at all, it's blimmin brilliant. Very much a companion piece to Yasimaka (or whatever else the first album's called). Similar group & instrumentation, but Musa's singing is more to the fore & impassioned - a very very enjoyable (& exhilarating) record. Perhaps only people's long term affection for the first LP + the thrill of the new (for most) that that had, has stopped Soubindoor being given its rightful dues as also a 'classic' recording.
Caveat : this opinion is based on two listenings (but I know what I like & I'm hearing it strong)

PS - not to be confused with the similarly titled later album 'Sobindo', which is a big palette, studio contrived record - still good, but very different in feel