The ritti has a big, big sound for a little instrument. The west African ancestor of the violin, its equivalents can be found in the Arabian rababa, the Touareg imzad, even as far away as central Asia. Possessed of a fluid and emotive voice of such range and shape-shifting flexibility, it's hard to believe that it's all summoned up on one string.
It is a ceremonial instrument, and a hypnotic tool used for trance as much as to mark births, marriages, deaths, harvests. One of its most adept players is a griot (a singer and storyteller) from Bakau, in Gambia. Juldeh Camara now lives in Birmingham, but was first recorded by Bill Laswell back in 1990 for his Ancient Heart compilation. From the age of five to 15, he was apprentice to his blind father, Serif, a griot from the nomadic Fulani tribe.
Though father and son have never recorded together, when Camara came of age they toured west African villages in a horse and buggy. "When I go back, his ritti is still there and he is still my father and he will play me songs I don't know. We play a lot together." He smiles. "A very good combination."
I meet Camara in London, where he and British guitarist Justin Adams best known for his work with Robert Plant and as the producer of Tinariwen's albums have been recording a radio session for the BBC.
Their album, Soul Science which has just been nominated for the 2008 Radio 3 Awards for World Music in the Culture Crossing category features what must be some of the most exciting guitar of Adams's career. Combined with Camara's rich instrumental vocalising on the ritti, and the north African percussion of one-time Jah Wobble accomplice, Dawson Miller, it's a thrilling marriage of Western and African sensibilities. And rather than spraying on the studio sheen that once bedevilled many African releases, it has a real down-home feel to it.
The two players met via Adams's solo album, Desert Road "the fruit of years of listening to Algerian, Moroccan, and Malian music". Adams is a superb rock guitarist, but one for whom the sensibilities of north and west African music have become increasingly dominant. "I'd begun to learn about west African rhythms, and wondered, where is that in the blues? When a rock player touches the blues he irons out the Africanness the way Status Quo play 'Rockin' All Over the World', they turn it into something like morris dancing. The source is all about syncopation and call and response, and the further you get from its source, the less it's there."
With Desert Road, Adams began tapping those sources, and it was via fellow English musician Duncan Noble, who gave Camara a tape of the album, that the two came to work together. "When I first heard it, I said, 'who is this African? Where is he from?'," remembers Camara. "He plays in the same Malian pentatonic key that I play in, and in the Arabic style, and it was very good."
Camara is a remarkably diverse musician, a master of the Malian kora, whose repertoire no other Gambian player would know; he performs with English ceilidh band Boka Halat, and his music has been used in the National Theatre's production of Elmina's Kitchen and more recently at the Globe with We the People, the story of how the African music travelled to America with the slave trade.
That historical passage, like the single string of the ritti, is one that vibrates at the heart of Soul Science's deep, joyful griot blues. "People don't talk about the blues in Africa," explains Camara. "But what I play has become the blues. I am a griot, I was born with it, and I have many songs that sound like reggae, and I find blues there, and rock." I can just play with it as we did with Robert last week."
He's referring to an impromptu gig with Robert Plant at Birmingham Town Hall. "We'd done a 20-minute rehearsal," remembers Adams, "and it was so enjoyable and natural." The same spirit infected the making of the album. "Five tracks were recorded in one day, live," he says
Soul Science fuses the Western blues forms we know so well with their African sources, Camara's griot songs are infused with a sense of identity that sets the source music a world away from its international offspring.
'Soul Science' is out now on Wayward Records