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The voice of ancient Mali

The voice of ancient Mali

...plus a new Proms king and an illuminating indie composer

...plus a new Proms king and an illuminating indie composer

August/September 2017

When Hawa Kassé Mady Diabaté met violinist David Harrington for the first time, the singer didn’t say hello or shake his hand, she broke into song. Her clear, powerful voice reminded Harrington of Mahalia Jackson, an American gospel singer. What he heard was a Malian praise song, a form of greeting among griots, the caretakers of west Africa’s oral traditions. It was a song of praise and of promise. Diabaté is one of three traditional griot musicians from Mali who play together as Trio Da Kali (above). “Da kali” means “to give a pledge” in Bamana, Mali’s main language. In her magisterial cries, Harrington heard Diabaté’s vow, to breathe new life into a musical heritage that dates back to the time of Sunjata Keita, the 13th-century founder of the Mali empire – a heritage which today is dying.

In turn Harrington made a pledge to Trio Da Kali. As the lead violinist in the Kronos Quartet, Harrington has, over the past four decades, reimagined what the string quartet can do by pursuing bold collaborations with an array of composers and musicians, from Philip Glass to Tanya Tagaq, an Inuit throat singer. After hearing Trio Da Kali play, he promised to work with them.

Ladilikan is the result. It is unlike anything you may have heard before. There is the steel of Diabaté’s voice, the thrum of the bass n’goni, an oval-shaped lute played by Mamadou Kouyaté, and the cool pitter-patter of percussion from the balaphon, a wooden xylophone which, in the expert hands of Fodé Lassana Diabaté, lets forth a bubbling brook of sound. And of course there are the quartet’s strings, which know exactly when to withdraw and when to surge forward. This delightful album makes a repertoire of music which is centuries old sound vital and new. It is a promise kept.
~ CHARLIE McCANN
Ladilikan Sept 15th

A young cellist outclasses the rest
Once in a generation, if we’re lucky, a classical artist arrives on the scene possessed of such lavish and distinctive gifts that the world cannot but sit up and take notice. Sheku Kanneh-Mason (above) is such a musician. On paper, he is a relatively normal teenager: the 18-year-old attends a local state school, plays football and loves Bob Marley; he sports an afro, wears cool sneakers and so on. Nonetheless, this young and impassioned cellist is anything but ordinary. He took the coveted title of BBC Young Musician in 2016 – the first black artist to do so – with a performance of Shostakovich’s cello concerto that was so technically brilliant and gut-wrenchingly expressive, it felt as though the Russian composer, long since dead, might actually be communing with us through this shy Nottingham schoolboy. Kanneh-Mason has since signed a major record deal with Decca, played live at the BAFTAs, and has been invited to perform on major stages around the world.

In August he makes his debut at the BBC Proms, with Dvorak’s “Rondo” and David Popper’s “Hungarian Rhapsody”, a terrific showpiece for his instrument. “Singing phrases, haunting melodies, virtuoso passages,” he grins. “All the things I love about the cello.” Meanwhile, there’s just the small matter of his A-level exams to think about. ~ CLEMENCY BURTON-HILL

Prom 62 Royal Albert Hall, London, Aug 30th; select venues in England, Aug 26th, Sep 16th, 29th, 30th

A window into an indie soul
One of Rostam Batmanglij’s heroes is Brian Eno, a pioneer of minimalist electronic music. “His touch is to crack open a window and let the light in,” Batmanglij has said. As a composer of maximalist indie-pop in the band Vampire Weekend, Batmanglij flung open the window to let the sun stream in. Half-Light, his first album as a solo artist, retreats into the shadows. Eno would approve. With spare strings, guitars and dashes of frenzied drums, the album conjures shade and light, dusk and dawn, to capture the way Batmanglij feels “both double and half”, as an American with immigrant parents, as a gay man in a straight world. It is a luminous record from an illuminating mind.
~ CHARLIE McCANN

Half-Light Sept 15th

A Holiday-maker sees red
Desperate times call for desperate music. But despite pop stars coming out as feminists and rappers backing Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, it’s hard to name many musicians who’ve bent their art as explicitly and effectively towards social and political matters as Nadine Shah, a 31-year-old British singer-songwriter.

Holiday Destination is her third album and its title track is inspired by the Mediterranean migrant crisis. In 2014, many newspapers interviewed British holidaymakers complaining about refugees washing up on European resorts like Kos and Lesbos. Spurred by rage at their indifference and by anti-immigrant rhetoric, her film-maker brother’s visits to refugee camps on the Turkish-Syrian border, and the annus horribilis that was 2016, Shah probes the gulfs between tourists and migrants, rich and poor, elites and masses, rulers and ruled.

As with her two prior albums, Shah’s dense, dramatic and often satirical lyrics are set to a boiling alt-rock that has consistently drawn comparisons to Nick Cave and PJ Harvey – only this time her sound is boosted by sax and synths. And her early strengths remain: hooky melodies, dark production and soaring, jazz-trained vocals. She’s one of Britain’s most distinctive voices. It’s time to start listening. ~ JAMES MANNING

Holiday Destination (1965 Records), Aug 25th

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