Jayme Stone & Mansa Sissoko
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Jayme Stone & Mansa Sissoko

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"Songlines Magazine"

There’s something utterly enchanting about this collaboration, so honest and unapologetic in its mission to merge Malian kora (harp-lute) and North American banjo music, that from the very first cascade of the two instruments together, to the sawing, edgy fiddling and banjo weaving on the old Appalachian favourite ‘Chinquapin Hunting’, the listener is riveted.

Jayme Stone, a young Canadian banjo player, decided to go to Mali to find out what kind of music had been left behind when slave ships brought instruments like the ekontin and the ngoni from West Africa, finally evolving into what we know today as the banjo. He met kora player Mansa Sissoko and the pair came up with this recording, which is so much more than the sum of its parts.

Many of the tracks are old West African favourites, and anyone familiar with Toumani Diabaté or Baaba Maal’s repertoire will recognise at least a couple of the songs. Some of the songs have nothing to do with West Africa at all – although Stone claims to hear strains of Wassoulou music (a Malian form) in some of the Appalachian tracks such as the frenzied ‘June Apple’ – and this album is a great chance for fans of one style to become acquainted with the other.

Constant throughout both styles is the completely natural-sounding marriage of the banjo with the kora and ngoni. The banjo seems to adapt just as naturally to old West African musical lore as the kora is able to roll up and down an Appalachian mountain favourite. The whole thing just seems completely at ease with itself; a real joy to listen to.

Rose Skelton

- Top of the World Review


Africa to Appalachia is that rare example of a musical exploration going perfectly, a cultural summit that sounds vibrant and seamless for all the right reasons. An exceptional banjo player, Jayme Stone’s intrigue about the origins of his axe eventually led him to West Africa. While many continue to associate the instrument with bluegrass music of the American south, Stone was surprised to discover that its earliest incarnation could be traced back to the African continent. Soon after, he met and began collaborating with famed Malian griot Mansa Sissoko, and the first result of this fortuitous union is a record containing intoxicating jazz, folk and Malian pop textures. Comprised of original compositions by both men and traditional songs arranged by Stone, Africa to Appalachia is a joyfully sincere record, from front to back. Songs like “Bibi” and “Tunya” possess an infectious groove, prompting guitar, banjo and kora to swing under the most prominent presence: the lead vocals of Sissoko and Katenen Dioubate. While voices strongly characterise these compositions, they also propel the instrumentalists in unique ways on “From Tree to Tree” and “Yelemane,” enabling adventurous interplay and fostering a lively meeting between distinct yet inherently similar musical styles.

What inspired your historical investigation of banjos?
Jayme Stone: Listening to West African music, I became deeply curious about what kinds of music hadn’t made it across the ocean on slave ships headed west in the 1700s and 1800s. I’m studious by nature and took to learning everything I could, transcribing ngoni, kora, balafon and guitar music. It seemed essential to be well versed in traditional griot music before collaborating with Mansa.

How did the musical arrangements come about?
I spent weeks in Quebec City rehearsing with Mansa, developing our repertoire and honing arrangements. It all happened on “African time,” meaning we played day in and out, letting the arrangements grow organically. I’m more accustomed to talking things out and writing things down but because Mansa comes from an oral culture, he needs to do things in real time. Everybody else brought their insights and brilliance to the sessions.

How significant are the vocals?
Mansa is a walking encyclopaedia of rare songs and the lyrics all have such gravity. Even if you don’t understand Malinke or Bambara, there are meanings and mysteries in the human voice that everyone can feel. The vocals also open up an [imaginative] space for the instruments to play inside of.

Vish Khanna

- Interview & Review

"NPR Music"

While typically associated with traditional bluegrass, country and even jazz, the banjo has roots that stretch all the way back to West Africa. Musician Jayme Stone made that journey in search of the ancestors of his own banjo. Along the way, he met kora player Mansa Sissoko. The two have collaborated on a new album called Africa to Appalachia, and recently spoke about their musical partnership from the studios of Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul.

Originally, the banjo traveled across the ocean on slave ships coming from West Africa in the 1600s and 1700s. The instrument was "later passed off to curious 'white folk' like me," Stone says. "Although a few people play some of the crossover styles that happened early on in the new world, [it] didn't seem like there was much knowledge of the music that it came from."

The Banjo's Evolution

Naturally, at that time, the instrument was not the modern-day banjo that most people recognize. Instead, it was more of an early incarnation that evolved over time.

"It's hard to say exactly what it was," Stone says. "More than anything, it was the blueprint of the banjo that traveled over in musicians' minds, and then they built a similar thing with what they had here: dried-out gourds, goat skin, whatever they could find. The instrument changed, and with the advent of metal, it became an African instrument that went through the Industrial Revolution."

The banjo in its current form has frets and employs a short droning string — what banjo players call the fifth string. But in Africa, these early predecessors sometimes used only one string and as many as 21. They have all kinds of names, depending on the region and dialect the people are speaking. Most common are the ngoni, which can have anywhere from three to nine strings; the two-stringed konou; and the one-stringed juru keleni, all found in various parts of Mali. Stone says that Senegal has instruments that are even closer in relation to the modern banjo — especially the akonting.

Sissoko specializes in the kora, a 21-string West African harp made from a calabash — a dried-out gourd also used to play percussion, as well as carry fruits and vegetables from the markets. Stemming out from the calabash, the kora has a long pole with leather straps tied to it that hold the 21 strings, which are made from fishing line. Despite the evolution of the instrument's physical aspects, when played side by side, the banjo and the kora have a very similar sonic quality.

Musical Similarities

"The sound of the notes are complementary," Stone says. "You have this nylon against metal, but in some ways the playing style and the melodic sensibility is quite similar."

Some sounds and ancestral melodic relics of the banjo's older predecessors still survive in American banjo music.

"There are traces of all kinds of things," Stone says. "If you listen to what they call minstrel music — which was this first white adaptation of African music that was mixed with English ballads and Irish fiddle tunes and some European classical-music influences — this was the style that was popular at the turn of the last century. In that music, you can hear these little repeated phrases, and then they would change and move on to something else. Whereas in West African music, they would take these repeated phrases and they would stack on all these other phrases.

"In certain ways," he adds, "Malian music is like LEGOs: You have one thing, and you can kind of stack on another thing and another thing endlessly. All these different people bring in different melodies and rhythms, and it's what they call polyrhythm."

Stone says the versatility and flexibility of the banjo and its African ancestors attracted him to the instrument and makes it distinctive.

"Let's just face it: It's the hippest instrument, at least in my world," Stone says. "It's kind of quirky, but it's really adaptable. You can be supportive with it, it's a rhythmic instrument, you can play melodically, you can play all kinds of different things. More than anything, it's the player and the imagination, but I think the instrument is capable of playing anything."

- All Things Considered Feature

"The Guardian"

Canadian banjo player Jayme Stone is a rising star of the north American roots scene. His genial presence is tempered by a wiry physique and an intense stare that may be better suited to the open vistas of Colorado, where he now lives, than Camden Town's Parkway, where bluegrass is hardly a way of life.

But Stone seems a restless and questing soul. An intensive trip to Mali several years ago gave him the blueprint for a new project currently touring the UK. Titled Africa to Appalachia, Stone's juxtaposition of Mali and midwest makes for a compelling evening's music.

Stone's key collaborator is kora player Mansa Sissoko, a Malian resident in Quebec, whose songs, many of them traditional adaptations, provide a platform for Stone's virtuosity and originality. For the tour, they're backed by bassist Paul Mathew and drummer-percussionist Nick Fraser, who give a nu-jazz suppleness to tunes such as Dakar and La Cle.

Their opener Ninki Nanka sums up their strengths well: a nicely paced, loping first section, followed by an energetic second half, with Stone's virtuoso banjo-picking sparring with Cissoko's glittering kora. Yet this is a mercifully long way from Duelling Banjos; Stone combines a jazz musician's sense of timing and sureness of touch with a pop musician's brevity and directness.

After starting the second set with traditional tune June Apple, he notes that "the thing about bluegrass is that even if you don't like it, it's over quite quickly". Bibi, a song meant to encourage hunters, takes us back to Mali for a while, but develops into an amazing "breakdown" section with nearly everyone making percussive noises, while Fraser wrests some almost electro-style beats from his humble acoustic calabash.

John Walters

- Concert Review

"The Guardian"

Banjo player Jayme Stone is a celebrity in his native Canada thanks to his ability to rapidly switch styles, from jazz to bluegrass or Indian influences. His latest excursion is influenced by his travels in Mali. It features the singer, kora player and griot Mansa Sissoko, and matches Malian praise songs against North American themes, with Sissoko's stately, rippling kora and Stone's impressive, agreeably muted banjo working remarkably well together.

But, despite the billing, this is not an album of duets. There were nine musicians involved, including the virtuoso ngoni player Bassekou Kouyate, and the best tracks are the more experimental. On Djula, the kora and banjo are mixed with rousing fiddle from bluegrass star Casey Driessen and trumpet from producer David Travers-Smith of the Wailin' Jennys. Fans may like to hear that Stone and Sissoko have just started a British tour, but without the full band.

Robin Denselow

- Album Review


"A deftly arranged collaboration of seemingly effortless ease. A confidently delivered, finely judged album with no boundary-crossing joins showing."

Featured on the fRoots and Mondomix Playlist - Album Review


Jayme Stone & Mansa Sissoko
Africa to Appalachia
2009 Juno Award winner for Best World Music Album of the Year

Jayme Stone
The Utmost
2008 Juno Award winner for Best Instrumental Album of the Year



In Search of the African Banjo:
A Polyrhythmic Journey to Mali and Back Again

Jayme Stone and Mansa Sissoko Reconnect Africa and North America:
Or is it the Other Way Around?

While on his musical mecca to Africa, Jayme Stone rarely let locals know of his accolades and burgeoning recording career in North America. He went to immerse himself in the high-spirited soundscapes, the daily life and lore of Africa. What he came home with was knowledge of two banjo ancestors never revealed before in the West, aspects of African music that eluded its American counterparts, and musical friendships that reach across continents.

“I played very little occidental music,” Stone recalls about his seven-week Malian adventure, “and was more intent on learning their craft. They thought I was some curious traveler with an ngoni that had gone through the industrial revolution. I ate with my hands out of communal bowls, braved the local transportation, and learned music on their terms.”

Though he began searching for the banjo’s surviving ancestors, the Canadian virtuoso became curious about what aspects of African music did not make it across the ocean with slavery. “The culture of slavery in North America, which nobody likes to talk about, was clearly not the best context for an authentic and meaningful cultural transmission of music,” Stone explains. “I wanted to find out how music is made on their turf.”

This project was a long time in the making. An auspicious four years before setting foot on Malian soil, Stone met Mansa Sissoko, a griot singer and a unique voice on the kora (a 21 string African harp). Stone soon realized that Sissoko was a walking encyclopedia of Malian songs, many of them learned from his mother, a griot singer from the town of Baleya. “The griot is someone who is there to play the role of blood in the society, for the society to live,” says Sissoko. “He gives life to the society, musically, using carefully chosen words.”

“With little common language between us, we turned to music for communication,” Stone recalls of his first meeting with Sissoko. “This tangible heart-to-heart connection was there immediately and I knew that he was the perfect collaborator for the project. African music is not designed to be analyzed. It is learned by doing, by immersing yourself in the sound, rhythm and story. It is participatory. This quality has deeply affected my own relationship to music, compositional philosophy, teaching and audiences. I’ve become more attuned to the communal aspect of making music, particularly the powerful effect it has on our daily lives, emotional experience, sense of ritual and feeling of belonging.”

Through this deep engagement, Stone picked up other life lessons along the way. On one recent visit, Sissoko shared something his mother had instilled in him. “When you make music, you grow a light inside your body. Other people will be attracted to you, but it's not you they seek but this light. Don't mistake the two or the light will be put out.”

Stone also spent time with Mali’s premiere ngoni pioneer, Bassekou Kouyate, learning court music that dates back to the 12th century. One such song, “Bamaneyake,” sings the praises of N’dji Diarra, the once-king of Bambougo who ordered a canal to be dug from the Niger River to his village because his wife wanted to see hippos in her home town. In keeping with tradition, Sissoko chants the lineage of the king, the king’s father, and his grandfather. But he adds his own egalitarian refrain: “Ndji! You indeed are mighty, but let’s not forget that all of your friends have helped you. Praises for everyone!”

“There are all kind of things that never got imparted to the Americas,” says Stone. “Like these perpetual polyrhythms and supersonic melodies. There are hints of it in old-time music, but things got repurposed, recycled into English ballads, Irish fiddle tunes, and African-American blues. Malian music is very inviting, and you can jam along quite easily, as many people have. But once you start digging deeper and learning things note-for-note, you realize there is so much more going on.”

When not absorbing everything he could from elder musicians in Bamako, Stone could be found traveling rural Mali. Unlike most outsiders sealed safely in their Land Rovers, Stone and his guide Hamadi Traore lit out from Bamako on the overheated, overcrowded poky public bus. Snapshot: fifty travelers, forty seats, babies in aisles, and occasional stops for prayer and raw yams. They wended their way through Dogon Country, a millennia-old natural escarpment considered to be one of the geologic and anthropologic wonders of the world. “I was curious to go somewhere where I had never heard recorded music from,” Stone muses. “Every time we got to a village, I would ask if there were any musicians.”

Aside from a burgeoning tourism industry, this collection of electricity-less villages remains largely untouched by the modern world.