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Exposure to traditional African music is limited in the western hemisphere so it is always a pleasant surprise when a recording is released, especially when it is a solid, well above average effort.
Clarinetist and saxophonist Oran Etkin has fused Malian music with elements of improvisation and jazz in his debut, Kelenia. This is not just mere pastiche but a successful melding of musical genres into a work that maintains a strong traditional identity while solidly remaining a modern art form of the 21st century.
All the tunes, save one, consist of either old Malian songs or new compositions heavily influenced by the music of Mali. Etkin utilizes both West African percussion instruments and European string ones to create a lush and harmonious background for his saxophone and clarinet solos. The appearance of violin and cello on "Brink," for example, do not sound out of place but just a natural extension of the whole concept.
Etkin's sound on his reeds is a bit reminiscent of Yusef Lateef, another jazz musician who experiments with sounds and music from around the world, and who also provides the informative liner notes for this release. Etkin's improvisations remain close to the melody, but tastefully weave around the main themes' intricate and complex layers of sound, peppered with references to Jewish musiceffectively introducing yet another influence that nicely fuses with the rest.
The side and guest musicians also have plenty of solo space: Abdoulaye Diabate and percussionist Makaye Kouyate sing on two tracks each; Bala Kouyate takes an evocative balafon solo on "Damonzon"; and Lionel Loueke contributes guitar solos on three pieces.
The songs, especially the ones with vocals, do tend to become a bit repetitive and similar to each other, but the musicians' skill prevents things from becoming boring, maintaining interest even after a few spins.
Oran Etkin and his fellow musicians have created a testament to the universality of the language of music by seamlessly blending multiple genres and traditions into a whole that exceeds the sum of its parts.
Track Listing: Yekeke; Nina; Kelenia; Not A Waltz; Nama; Lacy; Brink; New Dwelling; It Don't Mean A Thing; Damonzon; Kelenia Remembered.