December 18, 2017

Kane Mathis plays the Turkish oud and the Mandinka kora, the latter featured in solo performances on this album. Mathis began traveling to Gambia to study kora in 1997, and his playing clearly reflects the lively, energized Gambian style, in contrast to the more serene Malian style heard from the likes of Toumani Diabate. But even given that background, Mathis plays with a particularly fierce determination. In these six reads of traditional pieces, he bypasses the slow build and dives straight into the fast water, his tempos cantering crisply, his riffs tumbling easily from busy fingers. There’s no mistaking the depth of his study, nor how hard he’s worked. I don’t know of any non-African kora player who can match Mathis’s technique and fluidity.

It can be a tricky thing recording traditional music from a culture not your own. There are dangers in being too reverent to conventions, and also with being too free with innovations. Mathis negotiates these challenges with aplomb. His playing has a certain restlessness about it that might tip his hand as an American, but he’s firmly in command of the traditional idioms. Also—and this is important—his tone is exemplary, with rich, ringing overtones in high register, and resonant, humming bass lines in the low. Sonically speaking, this is a very beautiful recording.

“Allah La Ke,” one of the touchstone pieces of the Gambian kora repertoire, flows smoothly between interlocking time signatures in Mathis’s hands. On “Jiki,” melodies leap from thick beds of rhythm. “Mamaandi” works around a lilting bass riff that serves as the piece’s backbone, but here, Mathis’s shifting rhythmic textures tilt nearly as much to Phillip Glass’s cycling minimalism as to Mandinka tradition.

The lines between predetermination and improvisation are not always easy to discern in kora music. On the album’s longest piece, “Sila Mesengo,” Mathis tears through riffs that feel largely improvised, all over a tripping 12/8 rhythmic flow. Perhaps the album’s loveliest piece is the closer, “Sunjata,” for the first king of the Mande Empire in the 13th century. Again, this is the galloping Gambian version, not the calmly meditative Malian one. If I have a complaint about this impressive set, it would be that a little of that Malian-style serenity would have made a refreshing change of pace amid such relentless florid virtuosity. 

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