Two cultures and two instruments that represent them. On the one hand, Africa and the kora. On the other side, Europe and the violin. Accompanied by classical Senegalese singing. The African-European trio Tamala revives the tradition of the troubadours with a unique sound and almost mystical connection.
Text: Erik Prochnow
"We combine two cultures into a new universe."
"When you write songs in Africa, it's because you have something to say," says Bao Sissoko, summing up his passion. And the 51-year-old Senegalese who lives in Brussels has a lot to say. The master on the kora, the West African harp lute, is one of the three members of Tamala, one of the most sensational world music formations at the moment. "We combine two cultures into a new universe to tell about the things in life that affect us all," continues Belgian Wouter Vandenabeele, who plays violin in the trio. Vandenabeele was a member of the renowned Belgian folk ensemble Ambrozijn and made a name for himself with the world big band Olla Vogala, which he founded and still leads. The third member is the Senegalese singer Mola Sylla, who lives in Amsterdam, is at home in jazz as well as improvisation and also created film music for Werner Herzog. While Sissoko and Vandenabeele mostly compose and arrange the music for Tamala, the 65-year-old Sylla writes the profound lyrics. He also plays the inland spit lute xalam, kalimba or takes over the percussion.
What seems to be a big difference musically at first sight turns out to be an intense harmony from the very first note. The trio actually combines African and European traditions into a touching unity. "The medieval troubadours were nothing different from today's songwriters in West Africa," explains Vandenabeele, who studied classical violin and then intensively studied folk and jazz at the conservatory in Brussels. In 1999, he was invited by the well-known musician Abou Thiam to take part in a cultural project in the south of Senegal. "The music and culture there opened a whole new window for me; this experience was the missing link in my career," says the 52-year-old who lives in Ghent. On the subsequent tour through Europe with the group Ngaari Laaw, he met Bao Sissoko in Brussels, who also worked closely with Thiam. They became friends, recorded albums with other artists such as Issa Sow or Mami Kanouté and started performing as a duo.
"I immediately liked Wouter's sensitive music," Sissoko describes her first encounter. Like Molla Sylla, the tall musician comes from a griot family. The term refers to the class or guild of professional singers, poets and instrumentalists in the West African countries of Senegal, Mali, Gambia, Guinea and Burkina Faso. "Our job is to tell stories about the people and pass on traditional knowledge, ancestral experiences," Sissoko explains. His father was also a kora player, his mother a singer. So his enthusiasm for music took hold of him at an early age, and he learned from his father. At eighteen, he finally began studying at the conservatory in Dakar. Since 2000, Sissoko has been living in Brussels. Through his many performances with Vandenabeele and his friendship with Sylla, he finally came up with the idea for Tamala, which means "traveller" in Senegalese. And travellers in life and in music they all three are.
But it was not until 2016 that the joint project really took off. "For several years I had suggested to Peter Van Rompaey, whom I knew from joint productions, that we make an album together, but he hesitated," Sissoko describes the difficult initial phase. Van Rompaey is the director of the Brussels non-profit organisation Muziekpublique, which has made a name for itself for years with outstanding releases and projects in world music (see folker #2.17). Then he organised a concert by the three in an old library and was electrified. "It was a magical evening and Peter said afterwards that we were a real band and that he wanted to produce us," Vandenabeele looks back.
While their first work Tamala from 2017 was still mainly characterised by improvisational interplay, the successor Lumba ("The Great Day"), released last autumn, captivates with its diversity. It is not only the virtuosity that captivates, but above all the enchanting harmony between kora, violin and Sylla's expressive singing in the tradition of the griots. In addition, hypnotic African rhythms merge with classical western elements, blues, jazz, oriental music, gospel or folk of northern Europe. But it is above all the stories performed by Sylla that get under the skin. The basic themes of the album are love, nature, education and the necessary change of humanity. "Lumba is the great day to learn from the ancestors and live in harmony with the earth and nature," Sylla sings. But he also criticises the polygamy still practised in Senegal, the unjust distribution of wealth, the urgent connection between religions, the fate of the many poor street children in Africa, and the responsibility of individuals not to close their eyes to the problems of the world. "We didn't want to simply copy African music, but to find a language that respects tradition, reconciles it with modernity and shows what connects us all," Vandenabeele summarises the intention of her music and adds: "Because in the end, there are not two instruments like the kora and the violin, but one sound, and not two cultures, but just people meeting."
Lumba (Muziekpublique, 2021)