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Nicole Mitchell and Ballaké Sissoko – Bamako*Chicago Sound System


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Sweetly haunting flute and kora, beckoning the title song of this album, “Bamako Chicago”,   transported me back to 14 Sept 2017, in the Strobe Recording Studio in Chi-town, where I had the honor of witnessing it all come to life. The atmosphere was electric, almost surreal—a mix of playfulness and loving focus, creating a sense of family (which included 8 accomplished musicians, and the recording engineer, Caleb Willitz) overcoming odds to forge something groundbreaking. What more could one expect from a collaboration between two internationally esteemed composers: renowned flutist, former AACM chair, Nicole Mitchell, and innovative kora player, Bamako’s musical ambassador, Ballaké Sissoko? Both have defied conventions in their respective genres; Mitchell’s Afrofuturist sound and cosmic ethic and Sissoko’s integration of guitar progressions into kora compositions. Both push traditional forms into new spaces. Both bring a rich history of collaboration across various genres.

“Ballaké was really open. We came together as equals, each with our compositions, creating collaborative music—an amazing feat considering traditional gender roles. It represents a much-needed unity in this dystopian world we live in.” Nicole Mitchell

The magic began during a 2014 residency in the swanky suburbs of Paris, France, at the splendiferous Royaumont. Then, their host Fréderic Duval suggested the rather awkward working title “Beyond Black.” Three years later, with modest funding, Bamako musicians arrived in Chicago, and the project adopted a more fitting name inspired by a conversation between Mitchell and celebrated cultural critic/musician, Greg Tate: Bamako*Chicago Sound System.

The musical collaboration echoes fusion artists like Foday Musa Suso and Herbie Hancock, yet it forges a unique path with a blend of depth and frequency more closely relatable to Alice Coltrane‘s lesser-known blues/’occidental’ music, such as “Galaxy in Turia” and “Er Ra”, along with the nuanced and celebrated Journey in Satchidananda. Like Coltrane, this album is transformative, taking listeners to other worlds through sonic transference. Ballaké’s post-traditional innovative writing leaves ample space for interpretation and breath, complementing Nicole’s layered, complex otherworldly compositions.

The signature track, “Bamako Chicago”, transports listeners to a space that is both Bamako and Chicago, the Midwest and West Africa, Fatim Kouyate‘s and Mankwe Ndosi’s hypnotic vocal refrain “Chicago – Bamako” blending two separate geographical bodies into one. Percussionist JoVia Armstrong‘s splashing cymbal subtly accents and fuses with Fassery Diabate’s vibrant balafon, the combination evoking the kind of cool summer drizzle that produces rainbows.  Each instrument, from vocals to strings to wind to the percussive, merges into the other, while retaining distinction. It feels like a celebratory dance between new lovers, whose connection spans lifetimes—bridging romantic ties while affirming ancient ones.

The entire album embodies the African griot traditions of call and response, rooted in the Black Amerikan blues/jazz lineage. Some songs arouse the feeling of Bamako serenading Chicago through Malian streets and home-grown stories, as seen in “Tara”. Kouyate’s lush vocals, accompanied by Sissoko’s succulent strings, create a traditional yet powerfully sensory experience, reflecting a rich ancient culture.

Nicole Mitchell and Ballaké Sissoko

Other times, it feels like Chicago is guiding Bamako on a similar journey, as with “Spicy Jambalaya”. Mitchell’s butterfly-like, pied-piper build leads us through sonic ebbs and flows, echoing Chicago’s deep blues and jazz roots. Ballaké’s kora responds in a familial frequency, accepting Mitchell’s invitation. Joshua Abrams‘ bluesy stand-up bass, Ndosi’s atonal Sun Ra-esque vocals, and Jeff Parker‘s psychedelic guitar further flavor this sonic stew, while Diabate’s balafon and Armstrong’s rhythms act as percussive gumbo.

The exchange reaches a dauntless culmination in “Vulnerable”, where Ndosi’s blues vocals meet Ballaké’s dexterous responses on kora. Punctuated choral intonations rise from some ancient place – a gateway to a parallel realm of unrestricted consciousness, opening the heart and leaving it bare. As the song progresses, Mitchell lays down a soul-searing serenade, punctuating Kouyate’s sensual vocals, revitalizing a space of mutual acknowledgment, and embracing the bittersweet alchemy that prefaces healing.

Then, “This Moment” expresses thankfulness and joy, feeling more like a reunion than a first meeting. Mitchell’s celebratory composition harmonizes Chicago-style love into a universal cry, answered empathically by Bamako’s contemporized traditional groove, with Diabaté’s notable balafon solo elevating ecstatically high frequencies. Here, the collusion of all things string creates a tapestry of plush noise, pushing the boundaries of each instrument. By the end, “fears and doubts” dissipate, as both vocalists share sorrows and joys, grateful for “this moment” – to be transported to an ephemeral third space where terrestrial boundaries are erased via the sonic melding of esoteric sound – and that is something, as the title song suggests, no earthly power can, “take away”.

–Jamika Ajalon, 2023

Bamako*Chicago Sound System will be available from FPE Records in CD or digital format, August 23, 2024.

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