As a music category, "African" is impossibly broad. Encompassing a vast continent with myriad cultures, the label applies to hundreds of styles, from Nigeria's big-band juju music to South African township jive to North African drum ensembles. And then there's Taj Mahal's favorite, the moody string music of West Africa.
Taj, a fixture of the American folk and blues scene since the '60s, recently collaborated with Malian musician Toumani Diabate on Kulanjan (Hannibal), an album that explores the link between American blues and traditional West African music. Taj says there's no doubt about the lineage.
"Sometimes when people talk about the connections between Afro-American music and African music, they're kind of stretching it," he explains. "But this stuff clearly is a relative." He tells of the time he started playing a particular blues song and his Malian bandmates knew instantly where the music was headed. "It's almost like a relative who's gone away for 500 years and gone through some metamorphosis and changes, but is still recognizable."
Toumani Diabate plays the kora, a 21-string harp-lute whose creation can be traced to 15th-century Timbuktu, an important cultural center in West Africa's Songhai empire. For Diabate, born in 1965, playing the kora is a family affair. His father, Sidiki, was once revered as Mali's "King of the Kora," and even though he takes the instrument into new territory—melding it with jazz and flamenco, for instance—Diabate is part of an old tradition. He's a griot, one of a long line of historian-musicians who perform a crucial task in Mali and other West African cultures.
"These guys have been stewards of the music without changing the basic content, remembering different things from one griot to the next," says Taj. "The music I was bringing to them goes back to earlier times, but their music goes back 71 generations—71 generations! They all respected me as the elder, but at the same time, we were well aware that I was the one playing the youngest music."
West Africa's melody-rich string music has a sound distinct from the drum-heavy soukous, juju, mbalax, and Afrobeat styles typically associated with the continent. Its complex and melodic fingerpicking style is seen as a forebear to the rich Delta blues guitar sound of Mississippi John Hurt and others. A lutelike instrument called the ngoni—played on Kulanjan by Bassekou Kouyate—is a predecessor to the banjo. To Taj's ear, these old West African instruments "sing the same kind of way" as the guitars, banjos, and mandolins he's always gravitated toward in his own music.
As Mali's reigning kora master, Diabate is musically broad-minded but mindful of the past. Earlier this year he released New Ancient Strings (Hannibal), an album of kora duets with Ballake Sissoko, the son of another famous kora player, Djelimadi Sissoko. A 1970 recording by their fathers, Ancient Strings, has become a Malian classic that radio stations still play to mark national occasions.
Kulanjan isn't Taj's first recorded foray into West African sounds. He has sometimes tapped the African connection in his blues, folk, and jazz, and he played on The Source, a hauntingly beautiful 1991 recording by Malian electric guitarist Ali Farka Toure, well known for his huge-selling 1994 collaboration with Ry Cooder, Talking Timbuktu.
Taj Mahal and Toumani Diabate have been on the road in recent weeks as part of Africa FÍte '99, an 18-city U.S. tour featuring several African musicians, including Senegal's Baaba Mal and Zimbabwe's Oliver Mtukudzi (check out www.africafete99.com). Produced by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the show underscores a growing American awareness of African music, which often pulses with a creative energy that a lot of domestic pop has lost.
A significant number of people "are tired of hearing the mediocre stuff that's out there," Taj explains. "They're looking to make a connection with something real in a very unreal, very plastic, very disappointing world. Here is something that shines through as the real thing, the real vibe."