How the kora got a new slant

Take the Jimi Hendrix of the African lute, add a power supply and an effects pedal, and Electric Griot Land is the rock-driven result.
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The Independent Culture

If an African kora-led album is called Electric Griot Land, it'll be different. For years, this instrument - a 21-string harp-lute with half a calabash covered with cow skin as a resonator - has been associated with the gentlest, most traditional African music, as exemplified by Toumani Diabaté and Ballake Cissoko's classic album New Ancient Strings. But Cissoko, 38, and his band are plucking the kora sound - and the ancient griot lineage - into the 21st century.

Cissoko says the album's name came about because Sekou Kouyaté, the band's electric kora player, is known as "the Jimi Hendrix of the kora", and because "all the band members are griot and from griot families. The name highlights the link between tradition and modernity." The other band-members include the bolon (a traditional West African bass) player Kourou Kouyaté and the percussionist Ibrahim Bah.

Cissoko's family has a long tradition of kora players, including his father and grandfather: "In Africa, it's common to say the 'Cissoko' play the kora and the 'Kouyaté' the balafon." As a child, he was football-mad and a bit of a rebel - playing the kora was the last thing on his mind. "But my father told me I was from a griot family and I had to at least learn the traditional tunes that all griot should play.

"So when I was 12, my uncle M'Bady Kouyaté [Sekou and Kourou's father], the master of kora, came to my village and decided to take me under his wing. We went to Guinea Bissau, Senegal, Gambia. There was a real relationship with master and pupil - I'd carry his kora (I didn't have one of my own then) and take care of daily needs such as cutting wood, harvesting, etc."

Back home in Conakry, his uncle put him in the National Child Theatre to hone his kora style and enrolled him in the National Instrument Orchestra. He started to play at weddings, baptisms and village shows with his uncle's wife Diaratou. "It was here that I understood the importance of learning how to sing," he says.

He started a band called Tamalalou (the traveller) with a French trumpet player, and in 1998 they released the album Dandala. However, they split in 1999, largely owing to a lack of finance. Then he formed the Ba Cissoko Trio with Sekou and Kourou Kouyaté, and in 2002 they released Sabolan, which won rave reviews and a Radio 3 World Music award nomination.

Conakry is the capital of Guinea-Conakry (also called the Republic of Guinea), a country located in West Africa, adjoining Mali, Senegal, Guinea Bissau, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ivory Coast. Cissoko lives in the "artistic, cultural epicentre", a district called Taouyah, where his family and many other musicians also live.

"There are a lot of clubs in Conakry, such as La Fourchette Magique and LaPaillotte, where musicians come and play their instruments and jam together. Music is a part of everyday life in Africa. Everywhere you will see people playing in the bars and in the streets. It's a really natural thing."

Many young people listen to hip-hop and soul music, he adds, but traditional bands such as Les Espoirs De Coranthine remain popular, as is their own music, which has started to make an impact, especially with the African reggae track "On Veut Se Marier" featuring the Ivorian reggae star Tiken Jah Fakoly, from the new album.

Cissoko's desire to modernise the kora sound defines Electric Griot Land, as his band mix tradition with Afro-pop, reggae, soul and hip-hop. There are guest slots from the Somalian rapper K'naan, Amadou Bagayogo (the guitar-playing half of Amadou & Mariam), and the female hip-hop collective Les Nubians.

The album has a fresh, innovative feel. "Modernising the kora is a new way to show this instrument to the world. Our music is a real mix of contemporary and African, so we're not afraid to go too far."

The sound of the electric kora gives the music a mildly overdriven rock edge. "People are amazed to hear guitar riffs on a kora," Cissoko says. "Sometimes they ask if we have a guitar playing backstage! Sekou discovered the effects pedal on a trip to France when he was young. He perfected his style listening to Hendrix and other rock bands, although he is more interested in reggae and African music. He just saw it as a way of bringing the kora to another level."

The sound has been described as "urban griot". "That's a good definition," he says. "We are griot and are definitely urban people. We share several cultures from all over the world, we live in the biggest city of Guinea, and we add new effects to our music. So I think this is it; modernity and tradition."

Hip-hop remains the biggest type of urban music in Africa, with American stars such as 50 Cent, Tupac and Jay Z leading the way. But, as Cissoko says, most African rappers like to use traditional instruments in their music.

K'naan is a good example of this, as is Didier Awadi from Positive Black Soul (from Senegal) who uses kora onstage. "We organise a festival in Conakry where we try to show the public real traditional African music, but also mix it with contemporary music. This year, we had a collaboration between Sekou's younger brother Kanja, who plays kora and raps, and a musician from Lebanon who makes electronic music."

One wonders what the griot elders make of all this modern innovation, but the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. "All the elders we have met love our music," Cissoko says proudly. "Despite the modernity, they see in our music a real continuity.

"M'bady Kouyaté used to be sceptical, especially when Sekou bought the effects pedal, but now he's really enjoying our shows. With other elders like Gombo Jazz in Guinea, they always invite us to play - it is also a kind of respect and recognition of our music."

'Electric Griot Land' is out now on Totolo Records. The band plays The Roundhouse, London NW1 (08703 891 846), alongside Amadou & Mariam and K'naan, on 11 December