Opening the record, Trio Da Kali’s balafon (a wooden xylophone), bass ngoni (a traditional lute) and vocals clearly transport the listener to West Africa. But the introduction of Kronos Quartet’s classical strings a minute into “Tita” triggers an unexpected yet uplifting musical shift, thus unveiling an extraordinary fusion record. Commissioned by the Aga Khan Music Initiative, Ladilikan was released on 15 September 2017 last on the legendary World Circuit label under the stewardship of producers Nick Gold and Lucy Durán.

Trio Da Kali and Kronos Quartet - Ladilikan (2017)
Trio Da Kali and Kronos Quartet – Ladilikan (2017)

Trio Da Kali is a Malian music ensemble whose three members hail from griot musical families. Balafon player Lassana Diabaté has recorded with Salif Keita, Taj Mahal and Toumani Diabaté’s Symmetric Orchestra among others. Bass ngoni player Mamadou Kouyaté has recorded extensively with his father Bassekou Kouyaté and his band Ngoni Ba. Singer Hawa Diabaté is the daughter of master griot legend Kassé Mady Diabaté and carries the torch of the ancestral Manding singing tradition with her soulful and powerful style.

Based in San Francisco and more than forty years on the road, Kronos Quartet has never shied away from adventurous and groundbreaking musical projects including new commissions and film soundtracks. The quartet has recorded extensively the music of Philip Glass, Terry Riley, Henryk Górecki, Steve Reich, Sigur Rós and Bryce Dessner among many others. They have also embarked on several projects with contemporary African, Azerbaijani, Mexican, Indian, Danish or Finnish composers. Kronos Quartet’s latest recording Landfall (2018) features a collaboration with avant-garde artist Laurie Anderson. Launched in 1973, the Kronos Quartet comprises today of founding member David Harrington on violin, John Sherba on violin, Hank Dutt on viola and Sunny Yang on cello.

The fusion of distinct music traditions can be a perilous exercise at times, but the music of gospel singer and civil rights activist Mahalia Jackson (1911 – 1972) seems to have provided the initial spark for a stunning cross-pollination.

“God Shall Wipe Out All Tears Away” for instance is a reprise of a lesser known Mahalia Jackson song recorded in the 1930s and originally backed by an organ. The song was translated into Bambara and arranged for the quartet emulating the drone of the organ.

I just listened again to “God Shall Wipe Out All Tears Away” and God missed a few here in my room – the idea of Hawa singing this with us is really beyond any known reality. That this song could be sung in another language, by someone who has had such a different life and environment than Mahalia Jackson and yet is bound to her by the most amazing and somewhat related vocal sound is totally inspiring to me. There is something so deeply musical here. David Harrington

The title track of the album “Ladilikan” is also based on a gospel number sung by Mahalia Jackson in the 1950s. Again, “I’m Going to Live the Life I Sing About in My Song” was adapted to a Malian sound with new lyrics.

The interplay between voice, bass ngoni, balafon and strings throughout the album is truly mesmerising. At all times, the strings serve, echo, complement and espouse the flowing dynamics of the Malian songs.

The bass ngoni underpins all the rhythmic songs on the album with fabulous bass lines. With its skin sound table stretched across a wooden body, the ngoni is considered to be a likely ancestor of the modern banjo. The bass ngoni however has a much larger body and a deeper tone which brings its sound very close to that of an acoustic double bass in a jazz trio.

Lassana Diabaté is a virtuoso on the balafon which is both a melodic and rhythmic instrument. The musician is given ample space to shine on his own instrumental composition “Samuel” for instance or on songs like “Kanimba”, “Ladilikan” or “Eh Ya Ye” – the balafon was even mixed with a slight reverb on the latter song.

Like many World Circuit records, the cover artwork for Ladilikan was devised by graphic designer Julian House from London-based creative agency Intro. The exhaustive liner notes for the LP version reprint several variations of potential alternative covers for the record – accentuating the fact perhaps that the music and arrangements on Ladilikan are so rich and vibrant that each new play is bound to reveal new colours and prompt an entirely different emotional response.