If Jayme Stone left his native Canada, banjo in hand, simply to source the ancestors of his instrument among the musicians of Mali, he was in for something of an epiphany. Africa to Appalachia is far more than simply an engaging contact with a different musical culture. Rather, with the help of Malian griot and kora player Mansa Sissoko, the album has a genuine quest to create modern links – and two related instruments and the music that has grown up around them.
It’s long been known that the banjo – an instrument synonymous with Appalachian bluegrass music (remember the film Duelling Banjos?) – was first fashioned by Africans in America as an approximation to their own instruments. But few contemporary banjoists – unlike guitarists – have made the journey back to Africa. These journeys are interesting enough, but Stone and Sissoko are to be commended for going a step further. Africa to Appalachia is an album about forging living relationships.
There is much to praise here. Sissoko’s warm-toned vocals and fluid kora work, counterpointed by Stone’s banjo-picking, for a start. And there’s an expansiveness that pays off when guest musicians, such as fiddler Casey Driessen and ngoni player Bassekou Kouyate, are allowed to follow their own thoughts. Driessen’s plangent lines on ‘Ninki Nanka’ – a tune that invokes, for luck, a serpent of West African myth – are stunning and sombre.