Ba Cissoko Lula Lounge, Toronto ON May 11

Ba Cissoko Lula Lounge, Toronto ON May 11
With the hype about the "ruffest and tuffest” African dancehall and hip-hop being the sound of the continent’s next generation, it’s easy to forget that African youth music embraces so much more. Electric Griot Land, the latest album from kora master Guinean Ba Cissoko, is proof of that, combining digital signal processing and a survey of danceable rhythms from around the world with classic Mande instrumentation. As good as the album is, nothing suggested that they would put on one of the greatest shows I’ve ever witnessed. As on the disc, Cissoko was joined by fellow kora player Sekou Kouyate, electric bassist Kourou Kouyate and percussionist Ibrahim Bah. The band started out with an up-tempo number that showed both kora players locked in — that’s 42 strings coming at you — from the get-go. Nice, toe-tapping stuff, but played fairly straight and left me wondering whether they would be able to reproduce the album’s armada of effects on stage. As they launched into the second tune, Sekou’s introduction bore the unmistakable sound of a volume pedal, pulling the lightning-fast picking into new sonic territory. The groove picked up a notch, featuring bluesy changes and an emphasis on the offbeat that betrayed reggae influences. Cissoko took the first (five-minute!) solo, much of which was spent hammering on one string, which is unheard of for most kora players, who pride themselves on melodic improvisation. Cissoko put together an almost geometric solo where he would subdivide the tempo of the song while hanging on that solitary string. Then, as a renewed tapestry between the two players began, Sekou broke out the filter sweep pedal, and created arpeggiations that strongly suggested acid house. Add to that Bah’s uncanny ability to draw out 808-ish handclap and kick drum sounds from a single, wooden salad bowl-shaped calabash and two china crash cymbals, as well as Kourou’s sympathy with the lowest reaches of both koras made for a stunning, richly textured dancing experience. By now, the crowd were really starting to feel it. But they were just getting going… Song number three saw Sekou lead off with a hilariously clichéd ’80s rock guitar patch that astonished the crowd. Although the Hendrix influence is obvious from the album title, this solo channelled the spirit of Eddie Van Halen. Sekou was obviously relishing the moment, striking pose after pose; all that was missing was a righteous devil salute. At this point the crowd were absolutely bonkers, either dancing like mad or merely staring at the stage, jaws agape. Each song in their two-hour-plus set was an extended suite, with multiple musical and instrumental influences packed into each one. Techno and drum & bass beats were never far away from rock, blues, reggae and various West African styles. Effortlessly holding down rhythms at nearly 150 bpm, Bah’s percussion was a brilliant exposition of less-is-more instrumentation. In the sweet spots of the room, the mix kindly saturated the subtle but driving bass presence. In essence, this may be the best jam band in the world, combining brilliant and inspired musicianship with an irresistible groove while still remaining utterly in the Manding tradition.