Reviews June 15, 2018

Routes is anything but linear. It is more circular, recalling how Santiago in The Alchemist finds his treasure back home under the sycamore tree. Kora player and singer Diali Cissokho comes from a long line of griots and is the heart of this soulful and culturally collaborative album embracing both Senegal and North Carolina. Cissokho left his home in M’Bour, Senegal to follow his love to the American South and brought his music with him. It took time to find musicians in the U.S. who spoke his musical language, but eventually he found kinship among a quartet of Americans that form Kaira Ba, which roughly translates to “universal love.” The result is a new release, Routes, with Diali at the helm, making music that is in its essence Senegalese but with a universality that translates beautifully across cultures.

The album begins with the peaceful sound of cicadas in North Carolina on the first track, “Alla L’a Ke,” followed immediately by the sounds of a solo kora. It is so pleasurable and romantic to bridge space and time in this way with kora and cicadas heard inexplicably together. The final track, “Night in M’Bour,” ends with sabar drumming, children chanting the Quran at night, Diali’s nephew Mamadou performing on guitar, and woven into this scene are once again, completing the circle, the sounds of cicadas.

Diali and bassist Jonathan Henderson traveled to Senegal and erected a makeshift studio in a hotel room with the ocean as a backdrop in order to lay down the initial recordings for this album, which was later finished in North Carolina. Every track sounds effortless and expertly arranged to allow Diali’s experiences on both sides of the Atlantic to shine. “Badima” is a wonderful example of this, with authentic sabar drumming and electric guitar layered on top to give it a unique rock 'n' roll and mbalax groove. After a guitar solo, a Hammond organ surprises with a blues/gospel American feel. 

Routes doesn’t shy away from the different genres that have influenced Diali. You get a little bit of salsa in “Salsa Xalel,” reggae in “Baayi Leen,” and elements of rock ’n' roll all the way through. Diali remarks on the seemingly unexpected salsa genre that “salsa is a big deal in West Africa. My dad listened to salsa and played it and danced to it. I knew it from my dad. When my dad didn’t get along with his wives, he would play salsa and sing to them. I’d listen to the groove and the melody, how he put his finger to the string. That’s how I got into salsa.”

The climax of Routes is undoubtedly “Saya.” It is a beautiful, soulful and mournful song written by Diali after his mother passed away. It consists mainly of Diali’s soaring and textured voice and gentle kora accompaniment. The band enhances the sound with a thoughtful arrangement of soft percussion, a tender bass guitar line, and an absolutely breathtaking pedal steel guitar played by Eric Heywood. This track epitomizes Diali's vision and musical process. He explains, “Our instruments had to talk to each other. They had to follow my key, tune into me. I didn’t know how to explain. But then they heard the melody, and they tuned to me. I started to believe, O.K., it’s coming. I didn’t lose my music from back home--it’s always here with me. We spoke a different language. But music, as my dad would say, music talks.” Diali seems to have struck gold by staying true to his roots while finding musicians to communicate with on his route back home.

Routes will be released June 29, 2018 on Twelve | Eight Records.

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