MALIcool (Roswell Rudd)

Articles & Press

The Story of MALIcool

It is the result of a longtime fascination with African music that I share with Verna Gillis who worked to create the opportunity to go to Mali and make this CD. The recordings of Toumani Diabate and other Malian musicians such as Salif Keita, Oumou Sangare, Bassekou Kouyate - the melodies, the sounds of the instruments, the way they blend, and the way the musicians relate to each other in a texture inspired me .To be able to experience this magic in all of its cultural context and acoustical splendor was certainly a dream worth realizing.

I was a little concerned about the musical relationship that I would have with Toumani and his musicians especially the weight of the trombone sound - if it would be complementary to their performance practice. My concerns were alleviated at my first meeting with Toumani one evening at his compound in Bamako where we got to know each other a little bit and tried out the kora sound with the trombone sound. I realized right away that I needed to adjust to the level of the kora not only in terms of intensity but in terms of duration. I was going to have to leave more space than I was accustomed to and this would have an effect on the length and economy of my statements.

The sound of the strings and balophone in MALIcool is a continuum with the introduction of breaks to mark off improvised episodes. This gives each soloist a chance to play to the thoughtful limit of his creativity before passing along the opportunity to another soloist . I call their music "open form" in the sense that as far as the solo context goes there is a minimal amount of repetitious accompaniment lasting only as long as each soloist is in flight.

Hand-in-hand with these time/space considerations the Malian system is also more conservative in terms of tonal content. In the West we are used to exploiting the chromatic (or 12 tone) system to its utmost (or not!) Then as a jazz improvisor the nuances you apply to your expression expands this 12 tonal usage into the universe of microtonality by bending and shading the intonation.. In Mali, however, everybody that I heard and especially the singers was using a natural
octave of basically 7 tones, two consecutive tetrachords, the white keys of the piano. No two tunings for this "system " were exactly alike. In other words there is no exact standard of tuning like the way that there is, theoretically, for keyboards in the West , and this carries over into the singers and instrumentalists in western orchestras. Malians take their tuning from the balophones and no two balophones are tuned exactly alike, yet we can say that there is this common sound that they all share. They are often pitched in a way that makes them sound perhaps ambiguous to western ears but believe me they are totally meaningful and suspensful in terms of performing real music. Approximate tunings are very very ancient and part of early European music as well as the music of the rest of the world. It gives the overall sound that delicious flavor that only microtonal discrepencies can.

Another reason the overall sound of the Malian band is so fresh, swinging, and uplifting, is due to the cross rhythms and the quality-of-sound relationships between the balophone, ngone, and kora. The sounds and the rhythms are constantly overlapping to create momentum.

Toumani, his musicians, and I rehearsed briefly in Feb., 2000 and gave a concert at the French Cultural Center in Bamako. Only one song of mine was included at that time which we now call MALIcool. Listening to recordings of this first convergence and reflecting on the parameters of our excursions in this performance I decided to keep building off of this first reaction to playing with Toumani; you might say that I was pitching myself in a Malian way.

"Bamako,", the song, is something that came over me the last few days of our brief visit in Feb, 2000. For me it was an intial attempt at Malian composition, meaning a melody and harmony built off the white keys of the piano set over a minimal accompanying figure. The song was named by Toumani.

It's interesting to note how the Thelonious Monk composition "Jackie-ing" turned out. I had arranged a similar phrasing to what you hear on this track in the concept that I brought to Bamako, but in the process of teaching this version (which I thought was pretty Malian to begin with!), the musical feedback of the Malian players shifted the phrasing even further beyond the edge of the rhythm. I had to learn the song all over again!

Recently because of the plentitude of fretted western guitars, balophonists such as Lassana Diabate have fashioned the so called “black notes” of the chromatic system using two balophones - one tuned to the white keys and one tuned to the black keys that correspond to the piano keyboard so they are now able to facilitate the chromatic octave. You can hear that Lassana is well on his way to an inclusion of the chromatic tones offered by his alternate balophone.

The structures of "Jackie-ing" and MALIcool are both extended forms, meaning that they are substantially longer and more involved than the minimal riff in a Malian accompaniment. They were a real challenge for the Malian band because the tendency was, once in a section just to keep going in that section. Why turn around and go into another section just when things are starting to heat up? But I think they met this challenge valiantly and they grappled with the craftsmanship of closed form just as I learned to re evaluate the open form in their music. “For Toumani”, in open form, is divided into two parts. The first part is for kora, guitar, ngone, balophone, bass and trombone and the second part emphasises interplay between balophone, bass, and percussion which is more the level of intensity that I'm used to playing and is probably the closest thing to a ‘jazz feel’ on the CD.

The horn and drum combination has always been a very strong connection for me growing up in middle America . In fact I conceive of a drum-dominated rhythm section as being a conventional accompaniment for myself. But as I’ve said before, the drumming in master kora player Toumani Diabate's music is about the drumming of strings ( kora, ngone, and guitar) and tuned wooden bars (balophone) "the sound of flowing water", as Toumani calls it, with the actual drums (djembe, trap set) being more of a peripheral color than a nuclear thrust to the music. In a way, it was as contrary to Toumani's expectation to have a drum/horn centered music as it was for me to have a string centered music. However, with the piece “For Toumani” we were both able to have our cake and eat it too in a single composition by dividing it into two parts, the first part being string driven, and the second part , drum driven.

Again, as far as the trombone in the context of the Malian strings accompaniment, it’s a question of finding an intensity which does not overpower the strings and leaving enough space between trombone statements to give the strings a chance to sound.

Toumani has orchestrated each of his pieces in slightly different ways beginning with a cappella voice , the reiteration of a cyclical theme between solos and of course the minimal-essence-backgrounds that allow a soloist to play virtually unrestricted for as long as the flavor lasts. It’s a very effective and economical distribution of everyone’s energy. Finally I always come away with a heightened sense of playful themes, numinous space and implied swing which is every improviser’s dream of an accompaniment.


Roswell Rudd

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I have known and worked with Roswell Rudd since the early 1970’s. In the last few years our collaboration has taken on dynamic dimensions.

In 1999 I started representing and producing Roswell . I told Toumani , who lives in Bamako, about Roswell and that I felt Roswell would be an excellent person for him to collaborate with since Roswell is as much a world music person as a ‘jazzer,’ comme on dit!

I had planned a long overdue trip to Mali for February of 2000 and Roswell joined me since it had been a long time desire of his to go to Africa. I had played some of Toumani’s tapes for Roswell who immediately took out his trombone and played along. Roswell felt an instant and deep connection with Malian music .

Toumani became interested in the idea and arranged for him and Roswell to perform at the French Cultural Center in Bamako in February, 2000. The concert proved to be an auspicious beginning and at that point I approached Daniel Richard of Universal with the idea of this collaborative CD project.

The success of the music depends upon Roswell being able to enter into their musical modality and for them to be able, as well, to comprehend Roswell’s arrangements in a style totally unknown to them.

The recording definitely has the feel of having been recorded “live!” No overdubs, no doubling – what you hear is what you get – and that definitely has its advantages. And some disadvantages. The production values are not equal to what can be achieved in a studio in the west, but it’s what we had to work with. This first recording had to be done in Bamako both for budgetary as well as musical/cultural really too small for 8 instrumentalists which included two balophones! There were serious recording challenges but it was the best and only game in town and it worked due to efforts of Yves Wernert our excellent and valiant engineer.

Roswell was heroic and inspired working with the Malian musicians, teaching them his arrangements and changes, inventing his unique style of French as he went along. The group rehearsed for 9 days and recorded for 6 days.

MALIcool is the result of these efforts!

Verna Gillis, Kerhonkson, NY August 20, 2001


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