These days the borders between musical worlds and genres are blurring at an ever increasing rate. When a musician who was born a Jew in Israel—and now lives in America—who grew up playing the music of African Americans makes a recording with Malian musicians that combines his native and learned traditions with their music, well perhaps we are finally hearing world music.
Up until now when we’ve called something world music we’ve really meant that its from outside the boundaries defined by our language and cultural tradition.
It’s become so ridiculous that a Native American recording in his own country, where his ancestors have lived for hundreds (if not thousands of years), has his music classified as world. On the other hand a group who records material derived from traditional anglo/Irish folk tunes is called Americana. It’s even funnier when you consider that the latter are using instruments that originated in Africa (the banjo) and Spain (guitar), while the former’s instruments originated in North America.
What kind of world are we talking about when we say world music? A world where we work together to create something of harmony and beauty? Or a world divided into those who are like us, those who are different, and not those quite as important?
Oran Etkin was born in Israel and fell in love with the music of Louis Armstrong when he was nine years old and has been playing jazz ever since. However, at the age of nineteen he also started playing with Joe Camara, a percussionist from Mali. While it was Camara who broadened Etkin’s musical horizons by inviting him to Mali to live and play with him, it was Balla Koyate, a balafon (xylophone) player from Mali, and Makane Kouyate, percussion and vocals, who he joined forces with in 2003 to begin the process that has resulted in the production of his new release, Kelenia on the Motema label.
The title of the disc, Kelenia, is a word in the Bambara language meaning the love felt by those who are different from each other. This is highly appropriate when you consider the backgrounds of the original trio, and those who have joined them on this recording. Of course the music is an expression of the sentiments expressed in the disc’s title as well as the different backgrounds that come through in the music. Not only do we hear the obvious African and American influences, but in Etkin’s clarinet playing one can also hear the echo of Klezmer and faint traces of Eastern Europe wafting through as well.
What’s most impressive about the music on the disc is how well the musicians have managed to blend their diverse talents to create music that not only reflects their individual musical backgrounds, but something new as well that’s a result of that intermingling.
The music of Mali was not written with saxophone or clarinet in mind, yet not once on any of the disc’s eleven tracks do either of those instruments sound out of place when being accompanied by the balafon, or when they provide accompaniment to Makane Kouyate’s vocals. The same applies when Balla Koyate joins Etkin for a rendition of Duke Ellignton’s “It Doesn’t Mean A Thing.” His balafon, although lending the song towards a more exotic flavour than we might be accustomed to, sounds right at home.
There have been recordings made of North America musicians playing with those from countries like Mali before. Yet they have not been like this, because most of those have attempted to graft the blues or jazz onto a tradition. While sharing some similarities, it still has its own distinct flavor. In the past, that flavor has usually been close to washed away, resulting in people exclaiming about how much “they sound like us.”
Of course any similarities that may exist do so because our music descends from theirs. In other words, because we sound like them. However, the real problem is the fact that the styles never seem to meet on equal terms.
On Kelenia Oran Etkin and his bandmates aren’t trying to graft anything. Instead they have synthesized their individual musical and cultural identities to create something that not only allows them to express a unified sound, but also preserves their individuality.
The last thing I would think anyone would want to hear would be a sound that eliminates our differences in order to create something homogeneous and without character. Somehow these musicians manage to both celebrate their differences and ways for them to work in concert. As you listen you’ll be able to pick out traits that sound familiar to your ear which serve as a bridge into this new musical landscape.
What is so amazing about this recording is that its a disc where nobody is tries to imitate someone else’s way of playing music, but where all involved have figured out how their music can work as part of a single unified style.
The result is something extraordinary and wonderful to listen to. Not only is the sound harmonious, but so are the feelings generated by the intent behind the making of the disc. Where the title means the love of people who are different from each other, so does the music celebrate how people can love each other because of their differences, not in spite of them.
When you listen to this disc you will have to rid yourself of any preconceived notions that you may have of how certain types of music should sound. However, you’ll soon realize that if more people were willing to make the kind of effort these musicians have made, it would be more than a new world of sound you’d be experiencing. It would also be a far more harmonious one in which we live.