If there were a musical instrument version of the BBC’s popular personal history programme “Who Do You Think You Are”, the banjo would surely be first in line for some genealogical gap-filling, such has been the recent proliferation of attempts to revive, recapture and return the instrument to its assumed African source. Now Jayme Stone, an unaffected yet articulate banjoist originally from Toronto (now resident in Boulder, Colorado) brings his old timey and bluegrass enthusiasms to one of the more effortless family get-togethers. Stone’s album with Mansa Sissoko, Africa to Appalachia, was released early this year to relatively little fanfare, but its series of updated West African melodies and occasional bluegrass standards - including what Stone describes as “a twisted version” of The June Apple - has proven to be one of 2009’s long-fuse albums, its subtle charms and supple melodies creeping up and working their way into the imagination over the ensuing months.
With no grandiose claims to uncovering any newly discovered shared DNA between the banjo and its West African cousins, nevertheless Jayme says he sees a connection there. “I became increasingly aware of certain similarities between the banjo and instruments such as the ngoni, “explains Stone, “and in recent years I’ve spent some time over in Africa, including seven weeks spent journeying around Mali, learning about the ngoni and other Malian instruments, transcribing the songs I heard there, and meeting people like Bassekou Kouyaté and Toumani Diabaté; although actually the most important meeting of all has been with a musician based in Canada.”
Quebec resident Mansa Sissoko is a kora-playing griot, born in Baleya near Kita in western Mali and raised in the capital Bamako. “His mother, Fatamata Binta Kouyaté, was a well-known griot singer and story-teller,” explains Stone, “and although I never met her I have this strong feeling that she was a huge influence on Mansa. A lot of our songs come from her repertoire.”
That repertoire makes up the majority of Africa to Appalachia’s songs, with some familiar Malian melodies receiving Stone and Sissoko’s fluid banjo and kora treatment, with guitarist Grant Gordy in support and fiddler Casey Driessen cementing the bluegrass element where required. Mansa’s unspectacular but sturdy singing contrasts with Guinean griot Katenen Dioubaté’s soaring vocals, and bassist Paul Mathew and percussionist Nick Fraser lay down a convincing polyrhythmic groove.
“Nick and Paul are musicians from Toronto that I've played with for years,” explains Stone, “and I always love what they bring. There is a trust and understanding there, so I knew that they would fit in. Nick had never played the calabash before but he's an incredibly intuitive musician - it's in your hands as a percussionist rather than the instrument and he’s found his own way of playing it. “
The result is a friendly, empathetic marriage of styles which perhaps contrasts with the more academic approach of, for example, the (admittedly very interesting) 2007 Grammy-nominated match-up between Cheikh Hamala Diabaté and Bob Carlin. The alliterative, ambiguous album title – “designed to be evocative, summing up that the continents are related, but no more,” according to Stone - reflects this unforced, light-touch approach.
"Some traditionalists may question if I am the person to do it, because I am not a tried and trusted bluegrass player,” says Stone. “I very much come into it as a modern banjo player; I love bluegrass and old-timey and maybe I play it in an irreverent way, but for me the relationship and the energy of the collaboration is the most important thing. Even though we have different skin colours, cultures and backgrounds, and are from different countries, we both have imaginations and we found a place where our imaginations meet. There's a certain amount of study and understanding musically and culturally. But I feel that what we have come to, especially now that we have toured, is a music that's our music, it's the sound of these people; there's cross-influence and there are so many layers - I have all kinds of influences from listening to jazz, classical music, some of that trickles in, Mansa loves Bob Dylan and Bob Marley. We're sort of modern folk; it's just not an academic pursuit at all. I don’t even know how we would do it as an academic exercise at all, and it’s developing all the time as we play live.”
On paper, the smaller concert line-up (Jayme, Mansa and the rhythm section) doesn’t possess as much depth or variety as that on the album. But the sparser arrangements work well, bringing a bucolic dark edge where on the album there is smoothness and light. And there are a couple of impressive new numbers that the band has worked out on the road, and which benefit from the increased space afforded to the Stone/Sissoko melodic axis and the sparer, more acoustic rhythmic flavour in which they are framed. It’s a set that suits small halls and festivals - warm, inviting and with an understated intelligence and sincerity all of a piece with its accomplished yet modest practitioners.