Composition and arranging techniques from Grand Union Orchestra composer/director Tony Haynes

10: Inspired by the Kora

If you have been reading these articles regularly, you will realise by now that I take inspiration from the musicians I work with, and develop ideas from characteristic techniques from their musical culture. This article is about two compositions built around the kora, and the kora-playing and singing of Sadjo Djolô from Guinea-Bissau. More about Sadjo below (and the dramatic narrative behind these two pieces), but in my view he is one of the very best kora-players in the world.

These two numbers come from The Rhythm of Tides (Por Mares do Imaginário), like the pieces featured in Posts 8 and 9, but they are completely different in style. The first, Cano, provides the material for the second, The Song of Reconciliation, and it is in effect a big band version of one of Sadjo’s own songs.

Rhythmically poised between 3/4 and 6/8, it begins with a powerful unison brass theme (ex 1), then Sadjo sings the first strain of the song, which begins high and gradually descends a couple of octaves; this is repeated after an interjection by the horns, and I use it as the basis of one of the main themes in The Song of Reconciliation (ex 3, ex 8 & ex 9). After another horn passage he sings a second strain, which ends with an incantation of the word ‘Cano’ (which I also turn into an instrumental figure, ex 5).

Phrases and patterns from his kora solo that follows (and the endless stream of invention he produced in the sessions creating this show) inspired most of the brass and saxophone lines in The Song of Reconciliation. One other feature fascinated me, which I explored throughout both numbers: the key is B flat, but the kora seemed to be tuned in the upper register with a flattened seventh, but with a natural 7th (leading note) in the lower octaves; his vocal phrases adopt the same mixed tonality. This is also a feature of the opening brass theme:

The Song of Reconciliation itself – little more than two minutes long – is a fully-composed piece exploring the rhythmic and melodic features of Sadjo’s kora-playing and singing in Cano; the mood, however, is completely changed. Gone is the manic momentum: I wanted to create a piece that was relaxed, reflective, more reminiscent of South African township music than West African (eg Eleggua Ko, post 3). I also wanted to give the impression that all ten horn players were themselves improvising, and for the music to reflect the free flow of Sadjo’s kora, although it’s underpinned by the simplest of four-bar chord sequences (Bb-Eb-Bb/F-F7). For the same reason, the instrumental groups (trumpets, saxophones, trombones) rarely play as separate units: instead, the individual players continually re-combine in different ways.

It begins with a ‘string section’ that also includes sitar, pipa and Portuguese guitar as well as featuring kora, before the horns come in with a version of Sadjo’s original brass theme – now quite laid back and harmonised in sixths (as many of the other later phrases are):

The basic feel is African 12/8 (compare Eleggua Kó, post 3), floating between four beats to a bar and six to a bar; all the quavers in effect have equal weight, and so can be grouped in different ways to create rhythmic ambiguity. The fills in these first few bars are an example, others are sketched in ex 6; they are also used to punctuate the next figure, a variant of Sadjo’s first melody in Cano:

This is followed by more playing around with the groupings, emphasising different accents:

The ‘Cano’ incantation now appears (trumpet and tenor saxophone in octaves):

Then a number of short rhythmic figures grouping quavers in fours appear (these are also typical of West African djembe or conga patterns); here is a selection (there are other typical ones at the end of ex 4 and ex 10):

Against these, there are swaggering riffs that are pure township jive, finishing up with this one just after e) above…

…while in between (against the ‘Cano’ chant, now in the upper registers) comes another variant of Sadjo’s melody that makes 3 minims (rather than 3 crotchets or quavers) the basis of its pulse:

Next comes a unison version of his original melody (ex 9), a recap of earlier figures (ex 3 in trombones) and ex 6f, until this melody is  transformed into a long flowing statement in 3-part harmony:

The opening Cano brass theme (ex 1 & ex 2) now appears first in the low register against further variations of even-quaver figures (compare ex 4 – these are effectively tihais!) on trumpets and trombones, ex 10, before its last phrase rises higher and higher and eventually fades completely, leaving the kora with the last word.

Sadjo Djolô and The Rhythm of Tides

The four pieces covered in the last three posts – including Depois o Bosque se Fez Barco and A Country Conscript – form the heart of The Rhythm of Tides (Por Mares do Imaginário). Apart from an introductory number reminiscent of Portuguese fado – but with sitar and pipa joining the Portuguese guitar! – and Music at Last to round it off, Cano and The Song of Reconciliation frame the whole work (which is available on a much-praised CD). In my notes on Manuel Alegre (post 9) and A Country Conscript (post 8) I’ve already talked about aspects of the show which suggest why I chose this structure, but to go briefly back to the beginning…

I had first visited Portugal as a student in the sixties, when my trio was hired to open one of  the first night clubs in the Algarve; we were there for three months, and I fell in love with the country. At that time it was still under the fascist dictatorship; and Brazilian musicians dominated night-life in Lisbon (I don’t intend to imply any connection!). I did go back in 1975, a year after the Revolution, which had been precipitated largely by the ruinous African colonial wars, but then not again until 1990. My interest in Portugal had been rekindled by meeting a number of East Timorese exiles and support/solidarity organisations (especially in Australia), because in the meantime Grand Union had become established, and I was writing a show (Songlines) which centred on events around the Pacific rim.

When I did go back to Lisbon in 1990, I imagined that there would be a large number of Africans from the former colonies now living in Portugal, much as post-war migration to the UK was from British colonies slowly gaining their independence; and I assumed that these migrants would be enriching Portuguese culture in the same way. I was not disappointed – Lisbon’s night-life was now dominated by African bands, and the styles were very varied, from the commercial dance music and mornas of Cape Verde, through the Brazilian-tinged music of Angola and Mozambique to traditional songs and instruments from Guiné-Bissau.

Over a period of a couple of years I spent a great deal of time tramping the streets of Lisbon seeking out, listening to and talking with a huge variety of African musicians, but the most brilliant and remarkable was Sadjo. It is of course an accident – a tragedy, indeed – of colonial history that has divided countries like Senegal, Mali, the Gambia, Guinea and Burkina Faso into separate nations, and made them French-, English- or Portuguese-speaking (and indeed Christian or Muslim), since all share broadly the same language and cultural identity (Maninka or Malinka, Fula or Fulani).

Sadjo Djolô Kouyate comes from a long line of musicians, like griots, who in alternate generations took up the kora or djembe; his nephew Uïé (Queba Sissoco) is a traditional drummer who also appeared in The Rhythm of Tides tours. Sadjo is a devout Muslim – earning much of his living from busking and selling cassettes outside the mosque in Lisbon – but he also has a mischievous sense of humour: the gourd of his kora contains not only donations and small change, but other useful everyday items like batteries, toothpaste, a razor and often a piece of fried chicken… Above all, however, he a great musician – a true ‘force of nature’ Domingos Morais, my friend at the Gulbenkian Foundation, once called him.

The idea behind the Rhythm of Tides was to give an impression of the whole arc of the 500-year rise and fall of the Portuguese empire in 80 minutes, from the voyages of exploration of the earliest navigators, through the establishment of trading routes and colonial rule, to the wars of independence that brought about its collapse.

Portugal was the first European nation to establish a world-wide empire, and the last to give it up; but the tradition that Sadjo represents flourished in Africa long before the Europeans arrived, and will continue essentially unchanged long after their departure.

The Rhythm of Tides is available direct from the Grand Union shop; details and extracts appear on the Music Page of the GUO website.

There are standard big band versions of these scores, written for a project with the Guildhall School of Music, and available from Grand Union.


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This entry was posted on March 30, 2012 by in Composition, Music and tagged , , , , , .
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