The cello is not most peoples idea of a glamourous musical instrument. Even in the world of classical music, where there have at least been pieces of music written specifically for it, it plays second fiddle (couldn’t help it) to its sexier kin in the string section, the violin. Outside of the concert hall it receives even less recognition, for while instruments like the trumpet, saxophone, clarinet, violin, and even its larger cousin the double bass have become staples in the world of jazz, you don’t often hear a cello leading a jazz combo or showing up in your average rock band.
What most people don’t realize, save those who have taken the time to sit and listen, is the astounding variety of sound and the wondrous richness of tone a cello can produce. As a child my parents decided, in spite of an almost complete lack of aptitude, I should play an instrument as part of my education, and I somehow ended up paired with a cello. For three years I learned proper bowing and fingering techniques, but it was soon obvious I was no match for the demands of the instrument. I surrendered to the inevitable and stopped inflicting myself upon the poor long suffering music teachers in my school system. However, even my pitiful scraping of the strings were enough to convince me that in the hands of someone who knew what they were doing the cello would sound wonderful.
All of which brings me to the intriguing new project released earlier this month by Six Degrees Records entitled Chamber Music. Normally the term chamber music refers to pieces performed by a condensed version of a symphony orchestra with the number of musicians reduced from its usual over a hundred to around thirty or forty. In this case though, we’re dealing with something even less traditional as cellist Vincent Segal of France is joined by the kora-playing Malian, Ballake Sissoko. While this may seem like a strange combination at first glance — a 26-string traditional harplike African instrument being paired with an instrument from the European classical repertoire — the gap between the two men and their instruments isn’t actually that large.
Both Segal and Sissoko, while trained in the classical traditions of their instruments, have worked in what most would considered non-standard genres musically before. For Segal, this has meant working with everything from jazz combos to hip-hop groups while Sissoko has collaborated with people like Taj Mahal and contemporary composers. At the same time the music both men were initially trained in has far more in common than you’d think. In spite of increased exposure due to the proliferation of world music labels, there is still the widespread misconception that music from African countries is either high energy pop music or tribal based drumming. Sissoko’s training was in a much different type of music as like his father and grandfather before him he had been prepared for the role of historian, praise singer and bard for his people. The music he played was designed to help tell stories and create an atmosphere that was conducive to people listening to him, not to pulling them on their feet.
Even if you don’t know anything about the two men or their backgrounds, as soon as you listen to them playing together the connection between them and their music is obvious. From the opening, title track “Chamber Music”, to the closing song on the disc, it sounds as if they have been playing together for decades. First of all the two instruments compliment each other perfectly as the kora, much like a European harp, has a light almost ethereal sound that blends beautifully with the cello’s rich, earthy tones. However, instead of the cello being relegated to being a support instrument, as is the case most often in European classical music, playing the bass line to the higher pitched instrument’s melody, the two men have created pieces in which neither is confined to any set role.
Some of the pieces are based on traditional African melodies Sissoko suggested and in those Segal has improvised an accompaniment. It’s fascinating to hear the sounds of the two instruments interweaving as Segal mixes bowing, plucking and slapping his strings to create a solid foundation for the complex tunes Sissoko picks out on his kora. Then there are tunes like the more jazz sounding “Oscarine” where the leads they pass back and forth build off each other in much the same manner as you’d hear in any jazz combo. On this occasion the contrast between the sounds of the two instruments is at it’s most striking and potent, pulling the listener into the music through our anticipation for the next interesting combination of tones.
While the disc is primarily a collection of instrumental tunes, the two men are joined by Malian Awa Sangho on the track “Regret”. The song is a tribute to Sissoko’s late friend, singer Kader Berry, and is a stirring and emotional piece in which you can hear the feelings of the title expressed in almost every note. Sangho’s vocals are a third instrument and serve as a focal point for both the listeners and the two other instruments. While the cello delves into the depths of regret one can hear in the singer’s voice, the kora echoes the sharpness of the pain felt from the loss of a dear friend.
Musical collaborations between cultures used to be few and far between. Times have changed however, and we are starting to see more and more musicians searching for the common ground which will allow them to work with others from different traditions. While it might seem a cellist trained in European classical music would have little in common with a traditional Malian kora player, Chamber Music proves otherwise. This is a wonderful combination of sound and style that will both surprise and delight listeners from all backgrounds.