August 2007

Jayme Stone / Mansa Sissoko and friends
August 1, 2007 Hugh's Room Toronto
Canadian and Malian Musical Maestros
by Laila Boulos with photos by Mike Colyer
It's Wednesday night, mid-summer and Hugh's Room is packed. Me thinks something very special is about to take place.

We have all arrived at musical events breathless in anticipation of the drama about to unfold before our ears and eyes. But when the performers take the stage, themselves visibly excited, you know it would be foolhardy to give up your seat.

This was just one of those evenings.

As the stage begins to fill, the room becomes more animated. And once fully assembled on stage, the nucleus of musicians: Grant Gordy (guitar), Paul Mathew (bass), Mansa Sissoko (kora, djembe, vocals), Jayme Stone (banjo), and Jah Youssouf (kamal ngoni, Canada-Mali ngoni and vocals), the musical unfolding begins.

The first piece to whet the eardrums,”BiBi” written by Mansa, tells the story of an eagle. The rolling flow of this languid piece vividly mimicks the swooping and gliding of an eagle and hints at where these musical wings would carry the room during the rest of the evening.

Afterwards, Jayme informs the attentive crowd that this evening was historic due to the fact that Mansa — being griot — and Jah, would never be allowed to play together in public. Griots are born to be revered musicians and cultural storytellers performing at milestone celebrations such as weddings, births and other life events. Griots only perform with other griots and, in the past, were expected to possess a huge historical repertoire which they delivered flawlessly. The significance of being among the privileged in the room bearing witness to this event — a griot playing with 'commoners' — was not lost on his audience.

From the twang of the pull of the first string, the intense eye contact and rapport between all the musicians was palpable. 'Maestro' was the preferred term of reference, and, yes, reverence among the players this evening. If only couples exhibited this much enthusiasm and communicated as clearly with each other, divorce lawyers would be soon out of business!

It was utterly fascinating how a stage full of strings — at times, 61 of them — could create such a throbbing intensity, when, at points, no actual percussion was involved! As with the number of strings partaking in the festivities, there were many variances in the number of musicians and instruments melding on stage. Yet the easy-flowing ambiance of a bubbling brook was never once dammed by an instrumental misstep.

The musical dial spun that evening from meditative pieces such as Mansa's take-your-breath-away solo performance on vocals and kora to the champagne-overflow bubbles of pieces involving the core musicians and instruments including an assortment of guests. As guests, Lewis Melville and Dave Clark added a variety of percussive expertise including stints on the djembe. Lewis was also handy with microphone adjustments throughout the evening.

Another surprise brought Katenen 'Cheka' Dioubaté — she of the 1,000 watt vocal chords — to sing a song about how some people are blessed in this lifetime and wishing the same for everyone in the room. Katenen's powerful voice created dramatic waves in the previously peacefully bubbling brook of the evening's performance and was visibly a crowd-pleasing interlude.

One moment that was particularly touching occured when Jayme looked at Mansa and Jah saying "vous deux ensemble" (you two together) touching his heart and smiling to express the inexplicable joy he was experiencing on so many levels as he watched these two artists perform together.

The song, "Jarabi", warning that love is a sickness that a doctor cannot cure further enforced the belief that music is a universal language. With the sultry intertwining of the kora and banjo strings, evocative of lovers intimately embracing and reacting to each other, this imagery seemed to belie the actual meaning of the piece.

As the first set was coming to a close, Jayme announced that they would end with a medley of an Ali Farka Touré piece with an olde tyme Appalachian tune. Although the audience now had complete faith in the musicians, there was a wave of disbelief that passed through the room at this upcoming proposition. Rest assured, once they began to play, brows once again unfurrowed themselves. And as the Appalachian piece began to unfold, people let loose with their gleeful cowboy cheers of yee-hah!

On some pieces where percussion was actually incorporated, it just furthered the opiate for the senses effect. And the trading of singing duties between Jah's plaintive and Mansa's raw offerings was positively haunting on many occasions.

Jayme Stone

Mansa Sissoko

Jah Youssouf
Jayme fell in love with the banjo after hearing virtuoso Béla Fleck. Known for stretching the banjo's boundaries, at one point during the evening Jayme began working the strings using a bow to extremely effective results. He stated that people are awestruck at how well the banjo blends with African instruments and informed the crowd that it actually is derived from the ngoni which further enforced the brotherhood among the instruments on this night.

As mentioned, however effortless and seamless the playing was this evening, the only hint that this group does not usually play together was unveiled in the looks of total ectasy in the eyes of the players as their colleagues performed.

Unfortunately, as with all inexplicably beautiful events, this one came too quickly to a close. The performers during their time on stage offered a veritable musical bounty which harvested handpicked flowers of trees from traditional Mali, Canada and unique hybrids from each of the cultures. It was a wonderful trip!

We welcome your comments and feedback
Laila Boulos
• • • • • •
Mike Colyer
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The Live Music Report

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