The Solace of Quiet Beauty: kora player Ablaye Cissoko and trumpeter Volker Goetze’s collaboration, Amanké Dionti

By Daniel Garrett

Ablaye Cissoko and Volker Goetze, Amanké Dionti
Songs composed by Ablaye Cissoko
and arranged by Volker Goetze
Produced by Volker Goetze
Motema, 2012

Volker Goetze and Ablaye Cissoko are two very particular men with very particular histories; and yet they represent something larger than themselves—people who have chosen to come together despite differences of birth and circumstance. Their collaboration is not merely musical: it is also an affirmation of friendship, of peace. The music they make together is one of beauty, comfort, meditation, and shared solitude. The music of the Senegalese singer and kora harp player Ablaye Cissoko and the German trumpet player Volker Goetze has a lot of space and mood in it, and its drama seems natural, emerging out of a particular voice, out of particular musical tones, with variety but also a consistency that is appealing.

“When you travel, I am at your command,” sings Ablaye Cissoko in an African language (Mandinka) in “Kana Maloundi,” words beginning a case for respect based on devoted effort, before adding, “When you’re outside the country, I am at your service. When you’re away I do all the work. Please, when you return, do not make me the one I’m not.” The words, here translated into English, ask for recognition, for understanding. The song could be from the perspective of a laborer or a lover. I have been told the song is about art and its uses; and, of course, art is both a labor and a love. In Ablaye Cissoko’s kora or harp plucking, each note rises into simple grace, accompanied by the long, low wail of Volker Goetze’s trumpet. The silence in “Kana Maloundi,” a composition that has an eloquent sadness, is handled carefully, as part of the musical piece’s construction, its sound: the silence leaves space for contrast, and for thought.

The quality of Ablaye Cissoko’s voice is at once light and wise, with a timeless sensitivity, and the soft rhythm of his singing in “Amanké Dionti” sounds like the invocation of a ritual amid a bare, dusty landscape, though one imagines that now such music can be made in a teeming city, the music merely the remnant of an older civilization. Volker Goetze’s trumpet has the muted echo of an stranger instrument. In fact, the album that takes its name from that song, “Amanké Dionti,” was recorded in a beloved mid-nineteenth century wood-built church in Paris, Bon Secours. The two men, Cissoko and Goetze—who first performed together when they opened a show for Youssou N’Dour in 2001, became friends, and subsequently together made the album Sira (2008)—liked the acoustics in the building, Bon Secours, and its spiritual aura. I was surprised to learn that the theme of the song “Amanké Dionti” is the status and treatment of girls who travel away from their poor families to work as maids in Senegalese cities. The song insists that these young women are not slaves and should not be treated as slaves. Such sympathy might seem feminist, if one wanted to find a modern label for it: it is certainly humane.

Volker Goetze’s trumpet playing in “Togna,” a song about perception and understanding, is clear, exultant, well-structured, with what might be a classical aspect, though one that fits improvised music. The kora has twenty-one strings and in “Togna” they seem nearly pianistic. The music is sprightly, the voice, harp, and horn sharing equal space, with force and movement. The song affirms that truth is paramount and asserts the value of individuality. Its translated words include “Everyone has his own way of speaking. Everyone has his own view of things” and “His face is very hard but his heart is transparent. His words are piercing but his heart is transparent. His words are very hard to accept, but his heart is transparent.” Simple judgment is replaced by insight in the work of Ablaye Cissoko and Volker Goetze, who bring together different traditions—African, African-American, and European—and make music out of creativity, knowledge, and love, on behalf of pleasure, peace, and understanding.

It is not hard to think of gestures, words, and scenes of conflict or hatred, in one’s own life or in the larger world: parents who argue and plot against each other, children who bully and mock, employers that discriminate with prejudice and fail to support potential and perpetuate poverty, artists and scholars who are threatened by foreign traditions and work to suppress them, audiences and censors who insist on the betrayal of truths, political organizations that denigrate citizens who see the world differently and have divergent goals, elites whose ancestors gathered wealth and refuse to share the inheritance with those in need, minority groups whose only passion and power are grievance and resentment, old religions that cannot accept the facts of change and punish those who attempt to live in the modern world, and nations that wage war to acquire the property and resources of others. The forces of destruction are formidable, but so are those of creation. What an individual knows and does still matter: his affirmation of art, friendship, independence, integrity, knowledge, light, love, and peace are part of an endless struggle against cruelty, dishonesty, exploitation, ignorance, mob rule, and war. Each intelligent word and each generous gesture will give courage and guidance to others.

In the past, Ablaye Cissoko has worked with Randy Weston and Omar Pene, and Volker Goetze with Nana Vasconcelos and Markus Stockhausen, but Cissoko and Goetze’s work together is quite special: the solace of quiet beauty in a world of tumult and turmoil. Listening to Ablaye Cissoko and Volker Goetze’s Amanké Dionti, I was surprised by the Spanish element I heard in the instrumental “Silo,” signifying “straight path,” a song that has nice horn accents—the horn’s sound flutters, shivers, and rises into curls—and percussion by Joe Quitzke, with the drumming adding rhythmic tension and excitement, and the plucking of the kora quickens into a virtuosic display. If that is a straight path, it is one that does not lack for event. There is a rise of momentum in “Togna” and “Silo” that continues in “Fleuve.” The instrumental “Fleuve” was inspired by flowing water familiar to Cissoko, from his hometown, Saint-Louis, and the Senegal River that splashes into the Atlantic. What is the equivalent of soaring when it occurs in water rather than the sky? That is what “Fleuve” does. It is music that makes one glad to be alive, alert, aware: the art—labor, love, and lesson—is also in the listening.

Goetze’s horn in the composition “Haiti” creates a troubled atmosphere, its low tones suggesting mystery and worry: it could be the score for someone walking on a deserted plain or examining a crime scene. The song “Haiti” takes as its complex subject the island’s earthquake, a natural disaster, which left a bewildered people in its wake, as well as the confusion and corruption that preceded and followed the earthquake, a social disaster. There is energy in Cissoko’s voice in “Haiti”—this is a passionate query, rather than a resigned lament. Ignorance and knowledge, like cruelty and kindness or the difference between city and country, form a classic theme.

Ablaye Cissoko and Volker Goetze’s album Amanké Dionti’s concluding composition is “Miliamba,” a traditional African song that might be seen as background or foundation for the other songs here. I have been given what seem to be two different interpretations for the composition: one is that the song is about African bush country, and the other is that it is about a virgin sacrifice for African deities. “Miliamba” could be about the sacrifice of a virgin in the African bush, as among the translated lines I have seen are these: “The spirit of the bush is the spirit of the bush, which means that the people cannot venture out into the bush.” Ablaye Cissoko expresses a high-voiced tenderness in “Miliamba,” with Goetze’s trumpet seeming to echo something old, almost grieving. Cissoko’s singing has a special delicacy. Nature is beauty, danger, resource; and the song offers a warning about entering it. Of course, human beings are part of nature—a part of nature with consciousness and conscience.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.