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Kane Mathis: Kora Meets Jazz

By Published: September 22, 2010

Electric West African Music

It is not only in The Kora Band that employs jazz instruments with the kora. The Sahel Band has also used saxophones: "Yes, we definitely do [use jazz instruments]. In The Sahel Band sometimes we have saxophone players play with us. To us it seems natural because we're used to listening to some of the popular music that came out after independence and there are all kinds of horns all over those albums."

Kane Mathis with Oud

Surprisingly, colonialism was useful for African groups. Mathis says, "It actually gave the bands a lot of work. Some of these new top electric ensembles would entertain the diplomats for example. A lot of people accredit the rise in South American dance forms to the colonial preference for samba and rhumba, to the point where groups like Les Merveilles de Mali and Los Afro-Salseros de Senegal were sent to Cuba to learn Cuban music and came back playing violins and piccolos, and singing in Cuban Spanish. So in a lot of ways I think the colonial presence generated some work for them as well. And once they had independence in places like Guinea there is/was a huge push on the part of the government to reinvigorate traditional arts. Electric ensembles were one of the mediums for that. So the electric bands would not necessarily just play rumbas and sambas and dance styles that were popular, but they would also play their own traditional music on these instruments."

Mathis' Sahel Band, whose self-titled, self-produced debut was released in 2008. contrasts with The Kora Band in that it is an electric African ensemble. The band exists alongside The Kora Band in that it is constituted by Mathis when he has the opportunity. He says, "We play a lot at a club called the Triple Door, in Seattle. Basically when I move myself I reconstitute The Sahel Band in different places and in different contexts. The Sahel Band, with its original personnel hasn't done much touring."

"We have the same bassist [as in The Kora Band]. The Sahel Band is a lot more heavy-handed than The Kora Band project. It's a lot more arrangements and plays less with texture. It's a kind of more modern recreation of straight-up Mandinka rock, in a way."

"Mandinka rock" is a term some people may not have heard before. Mathis waxes on about musical terms and "genres": "We have all the terms that the music industry has latched onto like Afro Pop and Afro Beat, and there's a certain kind of rock music coming out of West Africa, out of West Guinea and Mali, where the pop or rock music has the kick drum patterns that are essentially lifted from dun dun parts. This is different from the Senegalese music, and it's different from the African salsa. It's its own kind of thing. It's essentially electric traditional Mandinka music. So the drum set parts come from traditional drum ensemble choices."

African musicians quickly utilized the electric guitar. Mathis explains, "The electric guitar had a lot of versatility because (it) could be played like an ngone, it could be played like a kora. In Guinea there is a particular down up right hand picking style that imitated the balofon very well. The down up of the right hand imitated the right left or left right of the balafon. [The electric guitar] was the perfect instrument to bring all these traditional idioms of various instruments into an electric band concept."

Mathis also spoke about some well-known African musicians, one of whom is a part of the Mandinka tradition, Baaba Maal: "He's a classic example of a true bard—they use the word 'grio' or 'jeli'—because all of his songs have the common poetry forms you would see in bardic West African traditions. He's very well-versed in the Mandinka forms and often uses kora and ngone and the classic Mandinka epic song forms. But he's really instinctive because the place where he was born, which is Podor, has a very strong presence of pulaar speaking people. They live basically around the Senegal River and they have their own kingdom of Futa Tooru, which I don't think I'm wrong in saying is a minor kingdom in the scope of that part of the world, so he's a huge figure that's carrying around this legacy and singing in pulaar and making that language world known. He represents a lot of different traditions. He does the Fulani music, singing in pulaar, he does some of the Mandinka singing, some Mandinka forms with pulaar lyrics, mixing with club and European pop styles as well. So he crosses into a lot of different territory."

Maal can be contrasted with Afro Beat's Fela Kuti, of Nigeria. "It's interesting," says Mathis, "because the legacy of Afro Beat, Fela and Femi, and the whole tradition that they started is as far as I know a truly contemporary African form. That form was inspired by Fela's experience in America and hearing black music. But interestingly it performs a very similar function to the griots or jeli of the Mandinka in that he used his music, his compelling music and charisma, also a feature of Mandinka professional music, to spread a message, essentially. "I feel that one thing that can be said about all African musicians is their incredible talent to adapt. That's Continent-wide. [It's] not only an ability to adapt but an interest in adapting their traditions to new contexts."

It is an exciting time for current music, as more and more Western musicians are uniting their sounds with world music. As Mathis' percussionist at Barbes, Timothy Quigley, said, "It's really happening now."

Mathis says, "I feel like people are more open and interested now. We're able to check out more music from around the world so much easier than before that it's just getting easier to trade music and let people know about different things. There have been so many successful collaborations with musicians around the world, people like Ry Cooder
Ry Cooder
Ry Cooder
, for example, or Sting, who are bringing other elements into their music. These kinds of collaborations are opening doors for people and making them more emotionally and artistically and aesthetically available for surprises."

The kora is tuned from C below middle C up to B two octaves above middle C. "It depends on what you tune it, to because a lot of people tune it to their voices," says Mathis. "But basically you have three octaves plus two notes. The first octave is not completely filled out, so you have one, five, six, seven and then one, and that's your first octave. That's twenty-two strings. The reason why I say twenty-two strings is because my kora has an extra low string that a lot of people use in southern Gambia. That's an A. So in my lowest octave I have F A C D E, and then I go back to F, and then I have the full octave and then I have another full octave."

Mathis has played on many albums. He says, "I have played with Macedonian groups and Greek groups, and [on] other projects. I have three [solo albums], and there's one that I made really long ago, which is not up on my page, which is called Bantam Ba Kouyate (Self Released, 1998), which you might be able to find, and that was the album that appeared on Gambian radio quite a lot and it was an interesting album because I recorded it live in The Gambia, in my dorm room essentially. All just live. And it got a lot of airplay on radio Gambia which was really special for me because so many notable players had been actual radio musicians, and just to have that approval was really special.

The other album I have which is an interesting album is called Kora And Percussion (Self Produced, 2004), and it's available from CDBaby. That is a live radio set I did with a percussionist of instrumental pieces using only traditional percussion. We basically recorded it on the radio in Seattle live in one take. We didn't add many effects, didn't add any editing. We just put the album out as the broadcast was."

"It's all traditional music. Even in the traditional music the forms are improvised. That's when you decide how long you want to play a song for—you tailor it. So we tailor the traditional songs to the broadcast like a jazz musician would play a traditional song for as long as he wants to or doesn't want to.

Mathis developed his singing to add to the kora. He says, "I sing just because I felt like the aspect of the voice in kora music was an important aspect and it was something I wanted to deal with, and it was a good way to practice using Mandinka. And the voice is a really compelling instrument. And it's such a different texture. You have this wind instrument over a plucked instrument, and it's a really interesting ensemble, those two things. And also because when you have a band, it's nice to have a singer and I was the only one who could really do it, so I started singing the Mandinka songs mostly out of necessity and interest, not out of having any skill as a singer, although I'm trying to develop it."

He adds, "Traditional Mandinka music is mostly sung. I would say all of the pieces are songs. You can play an instrumental version of the song, again similar to a jazz tune where you can sing the words or you can just play the head instrumentally.

This suggests that there could be, potentially, an easy translation into playing the music with jazz instruments. "Yeah, for sure," says Mathis."There may be an increasing number of these kinds of crossovers: "Yeah. Also I think the vocal phrasing of a lot of Mandinka music is really interesting and a little bit different than some of the choices many of us would make. So they're an interesting thing to study as well."

Mathis describes the principle differences between Western popular singing and Mandinka music: "Instead of a rhythm or a time signature you have an accent scheme. And so instead of having a pulse, per se, that orientates your rhythm, you have something that's a little bit more like a clave, and vocal phrases will end on important parts of the bass accent schemes in ways that make melodic lines begin and end in places which would be atypical for a lot of American and European composers.

"[Examples are] anything by most of the singers, anything by Ami Koita, who has a lot of great albums out, the song on the new Cascades album, by The Kora Band, called "Dakang," is a good example. That has really nice kora and voice [parts] that show the freeness of the voice and how it skates over and has a really distinctive phrasing arc that I think is unique to Mandinka music."

This appears to be a result of characteristics of African musicianship. Mathis explains: "I think it's because the rhythmic aesthetic is very forward moving, whereas in non African students of African music, when you play a repeating pattern it will sound [like that], but when you hear the African musicians play that repeating pattern it sounds progressive and it sounds forward moving. This is the first thing you notice with a new kora student from America or Europe. 'Cause if we count off a jazz tune or a classical tune, or even a folk tune, we might say '1-2-3-4' and snap our fingers, and it has this kind of verticality to it. Whereas if you ask, say, a Mandinka person how the beat goes, they might not snap their fingers in a quarter note. They might say, 'It's 1-2-3-4-5-6, 1-2-3-4....'

"A good example would be to take something like a clavé and imagine that as your beat, instead of a quarter note. I've heard a couple of musicians say to me, 'Well if you hear a vocal line, just only the vocal line of a rumba or a samba, you can tell which direction the clavé's going by the vocal phrasing, and I think it's the same thing in African music." Maybe it is the example of the broad African river, smooth and always sliding forward with inevitable movement: "Yes definitely," says Mathis.

Adding acoustic bass to the kora and drum is also a fruitful marriage. Mathis says it makes a really great ensemble sound. He has played in the format frequently.

A further step may be film music. Mathis says, "I'm working on some new kind of electronic compositions with a film composer in Seattle, named Steven Cavett, and that could definitely find its way into film. I'm a dance accompanist [with guitar and percussion] for my day job at the University of Washington Dance Department, and just dealing with being a dance accompanist for the last for the last eight years now, matching music and the visuals, is something that I really connect with."

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