If you’ve been fortunate enough to witness one of the recent UK performances by Toumani Diabaté, you might have noticed the great Malian kora player coax a tall, slim man on-stage for the encore to sing praises and join in the on-stage celebrations. That gentle giant with the modest gap-toothed smile is Jali Fily Cissokho, a UK-based Senegalese kora player and yet another member of the clan of Casamance griots that gave us wild electro-kora family band Jalikunda.
Jali Fily followed the familiar griot path, learning to play the kora from the age of six, as he explained to me after a sunny Sunday morning performance in Oxford with his latest band. “It was always the first thing I did when I got home from school, even when I was thirteen, fourteen, fifteen years old. Then I played at weddings and ceremonies in Africa, as my parents did before me, when my father would play kora with my mother accompanying him. After playing around my home region of Ziguinchor for a few years, I came to England in 2003 to play in Jalikunda with my brothers. It was a great experience, playing the kora in ways that we never imagined we would back home, and when I met my wife [and now manager] Christine, I decided I would settle in England. Ever since then, I’ve been teaching and playing here.”
Fily has recorded two albums to date, his first being a solo recording released in 2004, and there’s another solo kora album in the pipeline for 2009. His latest album, Doumajoulo, is a larger ensemble affair recorded with a number of fellow Senegalese musicians on electric guitar, keyboards and bass with sister Adama supplementing Fily’s soft, almost self-effacing, vocal style. Whilst not quite hitting the heights of either Toumani’s Symmetric Orchestra or the heady, funky days of Jalikunda, Doumajoulo is a smartly played, energetic collection in a similar roots-meets-big band vein as those groups.
“I was encouraged by my good friend Toumani Diabaté to play with anybody and everybody that I can,” explains Fily. “He believes in the limitless possibilities of music, and pushing our music as far as we can. Although I’m not copying what he does with his band, he is a great influence. I tend to arrange the songs from keyboard,” he continues, “and originally I was going to record the album alone, playing all the instruments and doing all the vocals myself. When the word got round, several old Senegalese musician friends approached me to play. Meanwhile my sister and nephew Seckou got involved. One day’s sessions became three months of recording and mixing!”
With the artists on a limited budget and with the producer and engineer desperately trying to mix disparate sessions together, the album’s production values tend to suffer somewhat on Doumajoulo’s busier numbers. Despite gaining good reviews, valuable airplay and steady sales, the occasionally opaque production does not do full justice to the ensemble’s live performances, where the instrumental elements separate out into a more satisfying, natural groove.
There’s certainly a lot to admire on album tracks such as Jalia and Umbalafeyle Tetambulo, but it’s only when you hear them lurch into shape in concert that you can appreciate the full potential of the ensemble. Fily sits imperiously centre-stage, poised and smiling whilst the band twist a circular, extended jam around his undulating notes, with guest Juldeh Camara adding winding rustic rasps on his riti (one-string fiddle) to the mix. And it’s all lit up by some stylish electric guitar work by Barthelemy Atisso look-and-sound-alike Sylvain Ndiaye. It's a sight and sound that's currently largely restricted to events local to Jali Fily Cissokho's home in Oxfordshire, and has impressed visitors to the Oxford and Wychwood Festivals as well as no less a luminary than whispering Bob Harris at the Truck Festival in Steventon. But it's one that deserves the recognition gained by wider ranging gigs and those Toumani guest spots.
“I'm hoping to take my Coute Diomboulou Band on tour soon but because we invested all our money in producing the Doumajoulo CD, we need sponsors to help us on our way,” says Fily. “I also need to stay in touch with my people back home. My local radio station in Ziguinchor is helping to promote Doumajoulo and I have linked up with main Radio Television Dakar in Senegal. I also have an ongoing family project in Ziguinchor, The Ziguinchor Music Centre. We want to offer the experience of living with a griot family and provide rehearsal and recording facilities. The building is funded solely by the family, and hopefully the children of Ziguinchor will benefit from this work.” For more information on this and Jali Fily Cissokho's increasingly high profile closer to home you can check his Myspace site.