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What does the music of Senegal and North Carolina have in common? Diali Cissokho and his band Kaira Ba have spent years crafting and performing music that answers this question – and the result is something completely new, yet universal. Presented by the NC Museum of Art along with Come Hear NC, Cissokho and Kaira Ba created a joyful and dynamic performance that, even across a screen, gave the audience a sense of this band's depth in just one hour.
Thanks to a collaboration with UNC-TV, the concert was impeccably filmed, transitioning among a plethora of camera angles – everyone had a front row seat to savor the band's intricate sound. Despite the array of different instruments onstage and fluctuating dynamics, the delicate balance of microphone levels seemed effortless. NCMA's spacious gallery became the backdrop (Alison Saar's sculpture Tippy Toes also made an appearance in the background).
The concert had a woven, narrative feel: one song flowed into the next. Between songs, Cissokho told the story of each song's origins conversationally, to the camera, as if talking to a friend. The same could be said of his kora playing – the instrument seemed to be an extension of his own voice, in both style and phrasing. The kora, a traditional West African string instrument, sounds somewhat like a cross of harp, guitar, and/or sitar. Throughout the concert, Cissokho's powerful but gentle voice blended well with the leisurely, organic-sounding kora.
The rest of the band added a new dimension to the gentle sound of the kora. There were so many lovely instrumental exchanges – in the song "Alla L'a Ke," phrases were tossed back and forth between kora and electric guitar (played by guitarist John Westmoreland). Perhaps even more unexpected, for "Saya," Westmoreland picked up a violin and wove through phrases alongside the kora.
The percussion section, created by Austin McCall and Will Ridenour, created rolling, explosive grooves, along with Jonathan Henderson's fluid bass. Together, the five musicians formed a flowing tapestry of tempo, dynamics, and rhythmic ostinatos. For example, "Al Hadji (My Brother, Gone)" featured Westmoreland's dreamy guitar solo, blossoming into an emotional and improvisatory jam. "Jabu," a song Cissokho wrote when he first moved to America, is just about the most cheerful song you can think of – the percussion plays off each other like a drum circle, switching up rhythms perfectly in sync.
"Xarit," the Wolof word for friendship, closed the concert. From the band's album Routes, its impetus came from Diali Cissokho and Kaira Ba's 2016 trip to Senegal. "Xarit" is a slow dance at first, but with forward motion. Its chorus, sung in unison, faded away softer and softer to the end.