Kronos and Trio Da Kali

Much as the idea of them is usually enticing, cross-cultural musical mashups often fall short in execution. Chinese hip hop,, Jazz ragas, even Renee Fleming singing rock tunes. Something is usually missing because, despite music being a universal language, translating for each other or even better, creating a new musical expression that blends elements of two traditions is much harder than it sounds. To actually dig in and collaborate takes an open mind and peerless musicianship, two things that both the Trio Da Kali and the Kronos Quartet have in rich supply.

Formed specifically to collaborate with Kronos, the Trio Da Kali and the now venerable Kronos first played together on 2014 at the University of Maryland, which was followed the next year by an appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival. Hugely talented Singer Hawa Kasse Mady Diabate is the daughter of a famous griot, Kasse Mady Diabate, one of the greatest singers to ever come from West Africa. To be a griot, to oversimplify, is that wonderful West African tradition of being a singer/poet/musician/keeper of current events/wise man that to this day is passed down through the generations.

A master of the balaphon, which is a wooden xylophone or marimba-like instrument, Lassana Diabate, and bass ngoni (lute) player Bassekou Kouyate complete the trio. The trio and Kronos have finally finished their long rumored recording project, Ladilikan, and it will be released on September 15 on CD, vinyl, streaming, and MP3 download.

Though I only had an advance CD to work from, the sound of this recording is exceptionally fine, no easy task when you are trying to capture the very different resonances of a balaphon, the quieter, more fragile resonances of violins and a huge booming voice. When I asked how it was recorded, I was referred to the liner notes, which said, "The album was eventually recorded in Switzerland inside four days, the two groups replicating in the studio their experience of playing live, with overdubs kept to a minimum."

Hawa's singing and appearance have been compared to that of Mahalia Jackson. While both are formidable women, who in some ways do look alike, this comparison I suspect comes from Kronos first violinist David Harrington who says that when he heard Hawa sing in 2013 the idea of doing songs associated with Jackson "sprang into my thoughts." Both singers do possess uncommonly strong voices and can turn up the volume when they so choose. And to be honest, many of Jackson's gospels and spirituals are latter-day inheritors of traditions that Hawa and the trio carry on to this day. Hawa sings in the Bamana language, which is very different from English, but it's easy to hear how seriously she takes her role as the passer down of secular stories, much as Jackson was an impassioned interpreter of gospel songs. In Hawa's case, some of her songs are ceremonial like "Kene Bo," which is meant to be played at weddings. Or in her most solemn duty, she is the living keeper of the historical record. In "Sunjata," she recounts in song the now 800 year-old tale of one of West Africa's greatest rulers.

The Jackson-Hawa comparison is put to the ultimate test in, "God Shall Wipe All Tears Away," a tune Kronos mainstay Harrington says in the extensive liner notes he had wanted to record for some time. While Hawa's voice remains at the center of the performance here, Kronos use of long, sustained vibrato-free notes, which sound remarkably like an organ, is what most draws the ear.

If there's an anthem here it's the title track, "Ladilikan" which translates as "Words of Advice," and which again has another Mahalia Jackson connection. Based on the gospel tune, "I'm Gonna Live the Life I Sing About in my Song," which was first recorded by Jackson in the 1950's, "Ladilikan" in which Lassana Diabate's balaphon soloing mixes with the fiddles of Kronos who drive the melody. The balaphon urges in a repeated line that is the melodic hook, [translated into English], "The words of advice that we sing in our songs—let us put them into practice." A rare success in cross-cultural collaborations.