Music Review: Jayme Stone & Mansa Sissoko Africa To Appalachia
It will probably still come as a surprise to a lot of bluegrass fans to learn that the five stringed instrument the guy up on stage is plucking away on that they know as a banjo came over with the slaves from West Africa in the 1600's. So while all the rednecks were condemning rock and roll in the fifties as "coloured"music or worse, they were busy listening to and playing music that featured an instrument more coloured than what they were putting down. Of course irony is usually lost on folk like that, so I really doubt they would have appreciated how funny it is that the Irish/Scottish folk tunes they'd been heard played on banjo and other so called 'merican instruments, owed as much to their former slaves as the sounds of Satan.
Of course that's assuming they'd even believe you. Anybody with those types of attitudes aren't what you call open to new ideas, or interested in hearing anything that would run contrary to any of their deeply felt hatreds or that might force them to admit that they aren't the centre of the universe. Thankfully there are fewer and fewer of those types of people in the world and more and more like Jayme Stone. Jamye is a young Canadian musician with a passionate interest in the roots of music and the inspiration and energy to turn that into something special.
In the introductory notes to the CD Africa To Appalachia that he and Malian musician Mansa Sissoko created, due for release in the United States on September 9th, he recounts how his discovery of the banjo's origins led him on an odyssey through West Africa in search of the music that didn't come over with the slaves. In turn Mansa came across the Atlantic in the other direction, moving his family to Canada just in time for a Montreal Quebec winter, to begin a new life. Like a great many Malian musicians Mansa was steeped in the history of his people and their music as part of his apprenticeship, which meant that Jamye couldn't have found a more appropriate person to work with if he tried.
As the title of the disc, Africa To Appalachia, suggests the two, along with accompanying musicians from Africa and North America, have drawn upon the various traditions utilizing the banjo to create the music that appears on the CD. So you get the very odd sensation of listening to a song being sung in Malian sounding like a traditional reel from Quebec or a fiddle tune from the hill country of the Appalachians. Even stranger is how well it all works.
Although when you think about it there is no reason for it to be strange that the styles should come together so easily. After all this isn't the first time African and another culture's music have come to together, it's been happening here since the first slave ships showed and dumped their "cargo" on these shores. Everyone knows the story of how the blues and jazz grew out of the blending of traditional African melodies and rhythms, Christian hymns, and the work songs that the slaves sung in the fields. Yet very few people seem to remember the role that the banjo used to play in jazz music. Up to the the big band and swing era almost every jazz band and combo had a banjo in it. It's only been really since the 1950's that the banjo began to be associated solely with country, bluegrass, and folk music.
In fact, although Jayme and Mansa have done an excellent job incorporating a substantial number of folk traditions into the creation of this disc, they somehow have omitted any references to the banjo's role in jazz music. I realize that might have been outside the scope of their interest, and it does nothing to diminish their accomplishment, but it seems the banjo is always getting short shrift when it comes to jazz. A recording dedicated to the banjo and the connections between its roots in Africa and the music of North America would have been a little more complete with a specific nod in that direction.
On the other hand the music that they have included on this disc is quite a wonderful cross section of various styles, and they have done an excellent job of merging the African and North American music. In fact the songs sound so natural the way they have recorded them, that if you didn't know better you would think that the music accompanying the lyrics sung by Mansa were the original tunes created for them. From the trumpet that gives one track the breeziness of the familiar sounding "high life" pop music of Africa to the turning of an African hunting tune into an Appalachian fiddle fest, there's a deftness of touch by all involved that ensures there is always a perfect balance between the two or more types of music being melded.
Of course it doesn't hurt that all of the people involved are apparently incredibly gifted musicians. Jayme has a wonderfully light touch on the banjo, so that he can play with authority while at the same time never drowning out those around him. That's especially important considering that Mansa plays the twenty-one stringed harp like African instrument, the kora, whose sound is almost diametrically opposed to that of the banjo. While the one rings the other sings like the wind soughing through the high grasses of the African plains and a banjo player without the ability shown by Jayme would leave the other in tatters.
On Africa To Appalachia Canadian musician Jamye Stone & Malian Mansa Sissoko have followed the banjo back home to its original roots, and brought it back across the ocean again. This time though its not come over lashed in chains in the bottom of a slave ship to be met by a domineering master. Its come over in the songs of Africa to be met by music whose origins lie in that murky past and has created something new. It would be nice if the past and present could always come together this well and create something as delightful as the music on this disc.