I almost didn’t log into Vimeo at 8 o’clock on Saturday night, March the 27th. It’s not that the programme wasn’t beckoning enough. After all it held much promise; the iconic Canadian musician Jane Bunnett was going to be on the bill, with her most recent iteration of her love affair with Cuba, Maqueque, were going to share the time-slot with the legendary Malian djeli and kora master, Ballaké Sissoko. But after a year spent under the iron ring of COVID-19 protocols it was more a case of “Zoom-fatigue”. For the artist the pandemic had not only choked them of their livelihood, but with the year-long absence from recording it suddenly seemed that even artistic inspiration was withering. For the arts performance industry as a whole has also been quite literally gutted by the forced shutting down of venues and the bankruptcies of those businesses who dared to even try to stay afloat while adhering to social-distancing mandates.
But surrendering to the loneliness of the human mind is the most potent elixir for freeing the spirit. Think about it. No matter how confined you are in your own head, you cannot prevent the freedom sound of music to enter and leave at will. Listening to music – any style of music – has a therapy and power to heal even the deepest wounds with a potency that even the most powerful drugs cannot match. And so, thinking about that kind of freedom, I followed the link to “Black Atlantic: Ballaké Sissoko & Jane Bunnett & Maqueque”, an online concert produced under the auspices of Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. It would mean the comfort of music, something to soothe the savage breast, at least… Moreover the idea of this “Black Atlantic” series offered an opportunity to recall the importance of history – Black History – to never forget its horrors, but to also is uplifted by the artists who are beholden by it… So it was for pleasure and therapy that I pursued the offer to “attend” by clicking that link. And I knew that I would not be sorry that I did so.
Among the most difficult aspects of self-isolation is one’s struggle with one’s inner demons. If that can be so daunting for us today as we navigate this global pandemic in the relative comfort of our homes, we might spare a thought for those who once were forced into isolation of a different kind away from their homes. The people in question are the African slaves who, forcibly shackled, were relocated by colonialists on the shores of the Americas and the islands around the continent. For them there was almost no opportunity to let off steam. Their languages were forbidden as were their spiritual practices. Yet, in the silence of their hearts they remained free and they never missed an opportunity to “sing” this freedom – in the fields where they worked, or in their shacks, sharing a meal, where the silence of the candle was broken by the song in their hearts.
Memorialising the history of this song of freedom lies at the heart of Duke University’s Black Atlantic programming. And few musicians embody this quintessence of freedom than the musicians of Jane Bunnett & Maqueque, an all-woman ensemble that comes together for almost five years now, to celebrate the power of the female spirit together with the ineffable purity and beauty of Afro-Cuban Jazz. Of all the programmes that have been held under the auspices of Duke University’s Black Atlantic banner; of all the Jazz music that has been glorified – such as “Thelonious Monk 100”, the epic homage to one of the greatest ever musicians to walk this earth.
Still, it seemed somehow to be extraordinarily poignant to feature a programme that would celebrate Africa with a closing of the circle from the Atlantic, back to the Motherland… an almost magical closing the circle between Mother Africa and the places that now bear the responsibility of caring for the sons and daughters of the Motherland in our truly strange new world. To that extent who could have imagined a better coming together of minds and cultures than the beckoning world of Mr Sissoko’s griot-inspired deeply spiritual musical voice of the ancient Songhai Kingdom preceded by the effervescent and free-spirited music of Jane Bunnett & Maqueque, an all-woman ensemble that came together to celebrate it all?
Maqueque… the very name itself – borrowed from the syncretized Afro-Cuban, Lucumi spiritual practice – means “Free Spirit of the Young Woman”. The soaring, unfettered spirit has only become freer as the women of Maqueque undertook the first flapping of their musical wings when Miss Bunnett first brought them together in 2014. While the core of that group – Miss Bunnett, pianist Dánae Olano and drummer Yissy García – remained, others went their separate ways. [Although vocalist and songwriter Daymé Arocena has often returned to grace the group’s music with her powerful and emotive singing from time to time]. If the much-celebrated, Grammy-nominated Oddara [Linus Entertainment, 2016], raised their musical game to another level, it was their album On Firm Ground/Tierra Firme [Linus Entertainment, 2019] adding the rhythmic architecture of bassist Tailin Marrero and percussionist Mary Paz to bolster the rolling thunder of Yissy Garcia’s drums. Perhaps the most noteworthy change to the original vocal department came with the inclusion of a brilliant young vocalist named Joanna Majoko.
I don’t think that I am alone in believing that Miss Majoko’s inclusion in the group is significant. You only had to listen to her at the Duke University performance – if you had not already bought the album before that – to realise that the magical music of Maqueque is scaling new heights again. Much of this has to do with the manner in which Miss Majoko sculpts and shapes her seductive vocalastics into the elegant and diaphanous melodies wrought by Miss Bunnett’s soprano saxophone and flute, all of which is then woven into the harmonic and rhythmic fabric of the rest of the group’s music. I would be remiss if I did not mention that the music of this programme was also uniquely – and spiritually – shaped by the wailing eloquence of Nikki D Brown on vocals and sacred steel [guitar]. With their superb repertoire Maqueque is contributing significantly to the Afro-Cuban musical heritage by bringing a singularly new and angular dimension to the path breaking work already enshrined in the library of music by their legendary “forbears” the all-woman Cuban ensemble Anacaona.
The programme of March 27th was relatively short and due to the challenges of time and geography [members of the group joined in from Toronto, Havana and Toledo. This meant that the Maqueque repertoire [for the evening] had to be selected from all three recordings. The set began with the gentle waves of their eponymously entitled anthem. This set the tone for the rest of the programme, which also included the spritely “Little Feet” from Oddara, and “La Linea”, “Habana De Noche” and “On Firm Ground” from On Firm Ground/Tierrra Firme. Throughout the evening the soprano saxophonist and flutist explored the tone textures and timbres of her instrument going deep into their recesses to probe, extract and express these in purest of pure terms. Meanwhile, Nikki D. brought her especially fervent Gospel shout and Miss Majoko wove her lustrous lines comprising wordless vocal sculptures into the ever-vibrant programme of this very special ensemble. I would be remiss if I did not mention the craftsmanship that went into the editing of footage from several countries to make it appear as though everything happened on one soundstage. Happily – though not surprisingly – I found out that it was the young Serafina Fraracci’s [daughter of one-time CBC producer Todd Fraracci], expert hands brought all of this to fruition.
After the brief, exuberant encore by Jane Bunnett & Maqueque, the lights were turned down low; very low as the stage was handed over, with a seamless edit, to a team at FGO-Barbara Paris – to broadcast a solo performance by the celebrated Djelikunda, Ballaké Sissoko, the Malian kora player from the mighty griot community that has been given to the world by certain West African storytellers, who have been keepers [over many generations] of the story of the progress of humanity from its early roots in the very first civilization in the history of man; that mighty African civilization written about so masterfully by the great Cheikh Anta Diop. M Sissoko’s set was an ethereal one. The vast emptiness of auditorium seemed to become a sonic shrine. The kora master was at its centre throughout, telling his masterful musical stories. It was a continuous set, somewhat longer than one half-hour. Often bathed in a corona of blue light on a darkened stage, M Sissoko seemed to shape-shift as the music began to come to life. Every note was issued in a kind of hushed breath. Often breath and music merged in cascades of notes and phrases that rose gently into the darkened rafters.
As the cameras zoomed in to the kora master, viewers got a glimpse of how M Sissoko’s slender fingers manipulated the 21 strings of his instrument. The music that was created rose and fell as the M Sissoko brought superb and endless dynamics to each long line of music which, in turn, glimmered and sparkled in the utter brilliance of each pizzicato event. Within moments the whole auditorium appeared to morph into a kind of gigantic living, breathing being, “singing” its stories about the universe. Keeping the epic going was each note from a string, plucked as if M Sissoko was caressing the kora into a palpitating, rhythmic heartbeat of the living, breathing thing that M Sissoko had begun to sculpt into beautiful life with his ethereal-sounding music.
Ballaké Sissoko is one of the few djeli practitioners alive today. He was unwittingly thrust into the limelight recently when customs personnel in the US destroyed his priceless kora. The incident is not forgotten and although I was not aware if the one he played was that same magical instrument that was so savagely destroyed, but the sound of the kora was still sublime. M Sissoko’s set took us to another world altogether. It was a world full of shimmering lights, mysterious depths and evoking the whole gamut of human emotions, its frustrations, expectations, doubts and hopes, ultimately soaring on the wings of artistic endeavor. In sheer colour and variety, in the exceptional range and refinement of his finger-work, Ballaké Sissoko delivered a performance of great power and stature which no amount of bigness can achieve [or has ever been achieved]. Clearly his mastery on the instrument and the lyricism with which it was presented M Sissoko emerged as an artist of the first order – virtuosic, persuasive and ravishingly masterful.
It must be mentioned that the French crew who produced this session – director of photography, Remi Crepeau; the lighting designer Theo Lacombe, as well as sound designer Sebastian Tondo and his assistant, Max Nonnet – deserve much more than just “honourable” mention. Whether it was because they themselves were enthralled by the music or not, they seemed to literally enter it, becoming with the magical sound that rose from the dais on which Ballaké Sissoko was seated on all his majesty. And all of this became something of a return tribute to Duke University for this very special night in honour of Black Atlantic.