Solo Acoustic Guitarist | African and Contemporary | Composer and Performer

from Programme notes for Bach meets African Classical Music

This concert brings together two strands of my musical journey. The music of J.S. Bach has been central to my exploration of the classical guitar, and of any work by Bach, the Ciaccona from the Sonatas and Partitas  for solo violin has held a special place. I first performed it twelve years ago and recorded it in Prayers and Dances II nine years later. The music of Toumani Diabaté has captivated me for the same length of time, and of all of Diabaté’s works, the collection of Malian kora music called Kaira has remained a continuous source of inspiration and wonder. I recorded this collection of kora works alongside a few others in this year’s recording called One Night on earth: Music from the Strings of Mali.

The similarities between these two works may not at first seem evident, but there are many. Not least of all they are both the product of musical innovators, unique individuals working in highly developed musical cultures who exhibit mastery of their musical language, and take this language to new places. Furthermore they are both the product of musicians who spoke music on an instrument with the facility of first language speakers: they didn’t learn this language from a set of written exercises, but rather plucked if from the very air, from the musical conversations taking place around them in the culture which gave birth to them.

Things are very different today, so much so that even effects our ability to understand a musician like Bach, a product of a musical climate radically at odds with our own. It is for this reason that I bring these two musicians together. Because I feel that, perhaps paradoxically, Diabaté’s contemporary Malian music can bring us closer to the kind of music-making that we may have heard from the fingers of Bach himself. But first to the more obvious connections; the actual musical similarities.

The Ciaccona is a set of thirty-two variations on a single bass line, a decending line popular in early Spanish dance music and reminiscent of the basic harmonic progression of modern flamenco. We hear this bass line thirty-two times during the course of the Ciaccona, transformed in many ways, but always recognisable. Above this bass flows a constant stream of melodic invention and harmonic voicings, a dance between the grounded nature of regularity and the flight of melody without boundaries. The flow does not cease until the final note of the piece, taking us on a musical journey of almost fifteen minutes.

Like the Ciaccona, each of the works in Kaira is created out of a single bass line. Jarabi’s short and infectious pulsing bass, Kaira’s swinging melancholic bass, Konkoba’s bubbling excitement and Tubaka’s cycle of four harmonies, repeated again and again as the substrate for endless melodic invention. Diabaté, like Bach, shows us how the melody can constantly re-invent itself, while remaining true to the confines of a single bass movement, how melody can work within the confines of a constant rhythm, and then also break out of this regularity and stand in contrast to it. At no point in either of the four movements from the collection of works called Kaira does the rhythm cease, yet a single melody is seldom heard the same way twice. And it is this musical invention, this seemingly effortless wellspring of musical thought, that I feels most strongly brings the music of these two composers, separated in time and space, together.

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