Griot Shona : It is in the traditional sound that the Cissoko’s find their music.
Tarang Cissoko is incarnated into the legendary Cissoko griot family of Senegal. He is a born musician. His father had 22 children. With his mother (also a griot), they had 10 children. Tarang is the 8th born. He has 7 brothers and 2 sisters, they are all musicians and as both their parents were griot, these ten are double griots. They are griot SORA!
Tarang plays kora in the traditional griot way, he is a singer and he is a sussed hip hopper too, yet it is for his djembe playing that he is already a master and fast tracked to becoming one of the best players in the world on this instrument.
The family play together in a family Cissoko heritage band called Ninkinanka. Ninkinanka is translated to mean dragon. The Cissoko brothers also play in a djembe ensemble, or troupe de djembe, called SILABA.
From his recordings in Dakar, Tarang has played for me, La Bamba, a salsa cover and Ngering, the Senegalese dance music that is closest to his heart.
When I heard Tarang’s elder brother Sankoum Cissoko, on the album KAYRA, I was introduced to the power, expanse and beauty of traditional Senegalese music. Here is the fire of this music.
On the track DIA KOUYA Tonia Liba Labana, percussion, balafon and strong female vocals shares a musical message ancient and deep. On the next track, AGRESSIVE, heavy steady percussion leads out. Solo djembe is joined by other djembe’s in a fast moving teiko style orchestration of supremely well reheased tightness. An ensemble with a Zen delivery. Balafon joins in the melody and finally vocals. Djembe’s maintain the music, balafon quick and vocals smooth, a cool calm and collectedness in the raucus rehearsed rhythmical interplay ofthe djembes. Track SORA follows with a balafon rhythmical melody. It is a steadily evolving soundscape of a song with a melodic balafon improvisation amongst a single stronged instrument that holds the rhythm.
The opening track of the CD is SANT MAME SARE FALL MANDIANI … balafon percussion interlace and a slightly distant male vocal leads. MENDONALE DIANSA is immediately more steady at the start as the djembe percussion ensemble creates a vigorous rhythm over which the balafon rides, and the improvisation comes from the lead djembe who pounces on the instrument giving it voice. Female vocals arrives as if a long awaited high emissary of the gods. Percussion thrashes forth, balafon is steady and trance like and the vocals settle into this stirring anthemic song. BALDE BANE features a kora, introduced by percussion then the soothing vocals of male and the entrance of a pensive percussion march on the djembe, pierced by the typical rapid percussion passages. Binding vocals add texture. The male voice is gentle and beautiful and the kora understated. On KIDDE the most mysteriously brilliant rolls on the balafon start the song as the instrumentalist rides up and down his instrument before settling into a complex melody, with improvisation.
Kora : Sound of Senegal
For the international audience, they love to hear the kora. The simplicity of the kora, is the music that greets the soul. The sound of the kora is like waterfalls of notes and textures, cascading, falling, rising, always evocative. With 22 strings, eleven on either side of tuning mast, i t stays in the same key. Tarang’s father was a great kora player. He modified his instrument to have 30 strings, 15 either side of the tuning mast. Tarang was never taught to play kora, the playing came naturally to him. Yet as a born musician he is at such an advantage. His physical build, mental strength and dexterity has been nurtured so deeply in this young man that his presence is a privilege.
The kora creates a playful space for the voice to sing out its song. The instrument itself is extraordinary in its handmade magnificence. When the pure delight of the beautiful harmony between vocals and instrument, the musician beams with light and pure delight as he shares his musical message. When the cascading waterfalls of kora playing roll down in passages of sublime repetition; it is like a prayer ancient and infinite. Such a delicate instrument, it somehow sings its own tune. The overtones arise in the interplay of melody and rhythm, as they pass together in cycles of harmony. With thumb the bassline sings and then the fingers of left and right hand play in call and response in their tight expanse of melody making. Sonic wonder, it is so content in itself. This is music. The music of meditation. Tarang is such a disciplined soul. He does not drink, smoke nor party. He is alive to his soul purpose. And what has helped him overcome frustration anger, but the music itself. He points at his kora and says to me, “this is my meditation.”
A humbling and growing experience to be in the presence of the power of this young man. I am certain it has taken him many lifetimes and many masters to find this current incarnation. When he is playing he is loosing himself in the music and making space for the muse to come through. And thus, after any good show, he always says, “it was not me who was playing.” It is his muse, the manifestation of his spirit in action.
Some of the songs I have heard Tarang performing include Jarabi, his version of a traditional song. It expresses his playfulness to which he sings the lines in two parts an octave apart. In Namonala (I miss you), the singing takes on a deep tone. His composition Nelson Mandela is an enigmatic chant. On Bomujudo we hear how the lyrical passages are translated to drum. The song Samanata is translated to mean “Now is the time,” and important message that he wants to portray as even the name of his band Watocosita, is also translated to mean, ‘now is the time.’
Sarara is fervent, and poetic with extensive lines telling a story Ma Jorita , playing unaccompanied, Tarang finds a beautiful sound, the cyclical kora, the cyclical vocals. It keeps riding on the wings of a cycle called melody. The footpath to the eternal journey. A life of purpose. A life lived in harmony. Music coming out of an endless world of inspiration.
Watocosita was the first band of Fabio and Tarrang : Tarang Cissoko from Dakar performs with a musical apprentice from Switzerland, Fabio Meier. They perform traditional Mandingo music on Kora and Kalabass, including Lalalaya (A suniata song) ; Bumujudo ; Namonala ; Binta ; Talibe and the song I am invited to transpose to trumpet, Sanu
he Epic of Time : Tarang Cissoko’s visit to South Africa 2015
When Prof Coplan met Tarang during interval at his showcase at the Orbit, Professor Coplan broke into a terrific French, he wanted to hear Tarang do the ten hour Wolof vigil, “The sunyata”! A musical epic dedicated to the king Sunyata who ruled the Saharan expense where the Mandingo people are situated today.
The excitement of this idea was contagious. Tarang was excited, because they like to perform this epic within his family, Cissoko, the pure musical griot, SHORA line. To perform the sunyata, Tarand would require 13 brothers and sisters from Dakar and 2 brothers who are living in Switzerland, and together these 16 members could perform the Sunyata.
It was too big a project for this date in South Africa but “Watocosita,” the duo project with Fabio Meier performed instead of the full Cissoko family but Cissoko griot was still present. After the show, Tarang said to me as many great musicians have said to me, “that was not me who performed.”
The griot is like an avatar, the expression of his spirit, the print at the end of a hand. The deep spirituality behind the griot is a consideration of time travel. For when the griot plays his kora he does not play from the mind, but from the heart. Kora is the griot instrument of the region from which he hails, it probably has a spirit of its own (like the mbira’s of Zimbabwe and the timbila’s of Mozambique.)
I watched how when Tarang played kora, Professor David Coplan time travelled with him. The sound of the kora had taken David back to a time when he was in Burkina Faso and had witnessed the performance of the griot in their traditional repertoire, the Epic dedicated to King Sunyata. An epic that lasted ten hours in performance. Sunyata was a point in history that the griot tradition goes far beyond all the way into the most ancient times of musical expression, a musical sound and expression that has remained unchanged for thousands of years. The musical sound and expression of the griot. And together they returned into the present moment, holding the key to time travel itself. Through being present, time ceases to exist. And so we perceive the remarkable incarnation of a griot soul as something beyond time. As a Westerner still coming to terms with the fluidity of my incarnation I witness his as so completely resolved that to be present and exist the mind so as to enter the meditation as completely natural and easy. The soul journey of the griot is a musical journey manifested through generations of similar incarnations. To be born where your fathers father all the way back into time and where your mothers mothers’ all the way back into time and where your brothers and sisters all the way forward into time are musicians, griots; is to be a musician complete. In awe and wonder I stand, awakening to the consequences of my own soul journey. He is like a king on a throne that cannot be removed by any human emotion.
Tarangs’ djembe repertoire includes Lamba (A suniata rhythm) ; Kassa and Tiraba … To described the playing of the kind of the djembe is to witness flesh and blood in action as though it were controlled by a higher power. Every action is so vigorous, so delightful, and so potent that it appears like liquid, transient, yet natural. It is Man, higher self, love and spirituality awakened. It is Man and God as one. And that is beautiful. The djembe drum sits between his legs, like a women to a man. The drum is alive, a deep symbol of love and love-making. Yet it is love making through music. For what greater love is there than presence. To see the griot, slap, tickle, entertain and drive his djembe instrument into the extremes of percussion music making was a joy and a pleasure that we must thank Wits University music department Marie and Cameron for making the space for this dream to become a reality.
Fabio is band member of the dynamic Swiss gypsy ensemble ‘Jeri Jeff.’ He journeyed to Dakar from Switzerland after one of Tarangs’ elder brothers, Kemo put them together. This resulted in the close friendship with the griot and Fabio’s apprenticeship on djembe. His sensitivity to learning together with the many hours he has sat with his maestro, has resulted in his playing coming good. Every day Tarang teaches Fabio djembe. His ability to teach is incredible: strong, honest and relentless, I watch this master disciple exchange closely. I admired the way in which he pushed Fabio to go beyond himself. It is at that moment that the body may ordinarily want to stop. But it is at that moment that you must not stop. With biceps burning, Fabio put his head back, took in large gulps of air and did it. He went beyond himself. The key to learning…
The rhythm Da tara tara tara tara da is an exercise in strength and vigour. To hold the ever increasing rhythm the student follows Tarang because when he strikes the djembe it stays struck. Even in a practice exercise he makes music and doesn’t let the fire of that music die. Fabio is a bean pole of a youth but when he is following Tarang, his biceps are pumping. To hold pace with Tarang, even in this exercise takes both courage and strength. Tarang is a man built like a Greek God. He is in perfect shape having trained his body through boxing, kickboxing, kung fu and karate. These were all ‘martial art’s that it was important for him to learn as a master musician. And in another percussion exercise he increases the intensity, skadatara, skadatara, skadatara, ta! From shoulders to elbows, the arms hang quite loose with a 30 degree angle down to the wrists and his heavy set hands. He makes an astonishing sound, using different shapes of the hands to create different sounds.
Fabio and Tarrang went onto make an album … From Switzerland to Dakar to Southern Africa, Siselebonga is an exceptional musical offering built on ancient music, modern techniques and the spirit of gratitude. It is 5000 years of Senegalese griot music through the youngest Cissoko son, Tarang brought to life through wandering gypsey percussionist Fabio and his guitarist friend Glauco (from Switzerland) through a series of Forest Jam improvised collaborations in South Africa and Madagascar. From Senegalese mbalax to jazz, gypsey is the flavour of this new and welcoming sound of world music.
Fabio Meier Interview
How did you get to Dakar?
In April was the exams to get into the proper bachelor study. I went for audition in my town in Basel, but I did not pass, unfortunately or fortunately. At the same time because my djembe teacher in Switzerland is a Swiss guy who went a lot to Guinea and Senegal, had a band with two of the Cissoko brothers, Mousa and Sankoum, but that drummer couldn’t play, so he ask me because I just started with him to teach me djembe so he knew that I play drums because we had the rehearsal rooms in the same place. He said to me I should play with them two concerts in a renovated church for cultural stuff. We barely make rehearsals because the one lives in Austria and the other Geneva, which is four hours with the train. We were together with a choir and we did traditional African songs. And there was also the song Mama Li, which Amampondo did. Nice video. Robert did it. There the man who was responsible for the sound didn’t have experience. They called Robert if he could look after the sound and he came and was introduced to these two kora players. I talked to them and they said if you are interested in our culture you can come to our house in Senegal Dakar.
And then I didn’t have anything to do. My civil works was nearly done. You earn some money there because you work a lot. I talked also with Patrick about his stay in West Africa. It started to really interest me, also the djembe stuff. I decided to go there. And I knew one guy from my home town. He went to Senegal and he went to Cassamans and he had a really nice project with a kora player named Lamine Koite from Cassamans. That was the first time I saw a kora. They made an album and a nice booklet, a diary of his visit. They came to Switzerland and did a tour. Two percussionists, one from Senegal who lives here and his good friend and student at the jazz school. They played percussion and Lamine Koite kora and Nataneal Bossard soprano saxophone. It was a wonderful concert in winter. I was totally depressed in winter and this was so nice a concert. I saw this instrument first time and was oh. And then I spoke with Sankoum about it on the phone. He said I should come there and his younger brother will teach me. I went there because I arrived.
Then Robert was talking about what he wanted to do, so I decided that afterwards I would go to South Africa. And then in Senegal all the djembe’s of the drums were broken, so the first thing I needed to find a djembe for me and fix one. I first realised when I came to the airport, I smelt this Senegal, Dakar smell, and it was different to my hometown. I was there and in the beginning I was somehow very impressed with the poverty there. For a guy who comes from Switzerland life is different, but it was nice to see and nice to experience. Sankoum chose I should stay an hour away from the family house where they do lessons, but it is a calm place near the see, so in the end it was very right to have this place and do the journey in the day for repetition. Because of that this project of me and him calabash and kora started there. And we started to play djembe there.
When did you decide to bring Tarang .. ?
I was talking to Robert and he was speaking about Madagascar, wanting to do Forest Jam and wanting to have one of these kora players. I asked Sankoum, but he is busy in Switzerland and Germany. And he knows Robert. He said he had some stuff and said ask Tarang. And then he said if you take Tarang you start today to rehearse everyday. Tarang was interested to come but the thing was who pays the flight because he has no spare money. Robert told me maybe there is going to be enough money to fly him back. I wanted to take him and it cost a lot of money. And Tarang told me if we work together and someday have some money I can take it back.
What plans do you have with your collaboration?
Plans are big. Maybe it would be nice he can come to Switzerland and we can make street music and drive back to Senegal with car. That would be nice. I did all the visa stuff in Senegal to get him to South Africa and Madagascar and this was horrible. All this administrative stuff. I don’t have computer and internet. But finally we got it.
Tarang teaches me djembe. He is my maestro. This is not really a collaboration. This is a master learner relationship but with calabash and kora we have a collaboration with 11 songs we can play. All traditional songs. All the traditional songs he doesn’t play it like his brother and his brother doesn’t play it like his older brother. They all have their own version.
How do you tabulate the musical rhythms?
On one hand there are guys who notate it with 8 notes, classical. When they are talking rhythm they have six syllables. Ku Sang Ka Dang. Ku Saka Ku Saka Pa. I am fabricating it with my own language, but some phrases are clear. On one hand it is very simple all these constructions of rhythms and there are not infinite rhythms and maybe there are not more than 20 West African traditional rhythms. They concentrate to play these rhythms very well. For me one day I want to try this music with a bass player, a guitar player, a drummer, some brass. And there you play straight only this stuff picked out from these rhythms. You have the deep drums that play the bass. And then how this is for the ear. All these rhythms you need to play very tight.
I will go back to Senegal…
All the following photos from Fabio Meier’s visit to Dakar 2015 featuring Tarang Cissoko and family