The Seckou Keita Quartet's 2006 album, Afro-Mandinka Soul, bravely (and rewardingly) placed the Senegalese griot's vigorous, melodic kora playing in an experimental framework of violin (or riti, Gambian single-string fiddle), double-bass and calabash.
Subsequent concerts throughout the UK, continental Europe and West Africa served to tighten the group's dynamic further, and The Silimbo Passage reflects the resultant increased confidence, improvement in song-craft and rounding out of their hybrid (but entirely, convincingly organic-sounding) mix of traditional-yet-modern Afro-European music.
A couple of slight tweaks in personnel have given the album added focus and appeal. Juldeh Camara, the Gambian riti player who featured on half of the previous album's songs, has moved on, so violinist Samy Bishai's lyrical playing now shares the focal point with Seckou's kora on all ensemble tracks (there are two Seckou-only moments amongst the ten tracks, one of which - Missing You - is a touchingly rendered instrumental lament for two recently-deceased friends).
And Seckou's sister Binta Suso adds sumptuous soulful vocals that not only round out tunes that might otherwise be in danger of escaping the casual listener's immediate attention (the quartet-cum-quintet is nothing if not bold, opening the album with three tracks, all around six minutes long, all demanding patience as they gradually reveal their considerable charms layer by layer), but appear to have brought an improved, deeper tone to Seckou's voice as he strives to complement his new co-vocalist. Fonding Ké in particular sees the pair alternately harmonising and calling-and-responding with sibling intuitiveness over an agreeably jazzy groove.
But it's when Binta sings with elegant authority on Miniyamba, as Bishai weaves mournful notes around Keita's adroit kora playing, and rhythm section Davide Mantovani (double-bass) and Surahata Susso (percussion) shift the tempo back and forth in myriad subtle ways, that the ensemble truly excels. If you want a test of where a group is at, there's possibly no better song than this ubiquitous West African standard, and on this rendition - and The Silimbo Passage as a whole - the Seckou Keita SKQ passes with flying colours.
This review first appeared in fRoots magazine.