This entire concert is available on demand in HD on Empty Sea Television.
Friday, October 26th — 6:00 PM
Two hours before showtime, the studio was already a buzz of activity: staff engineer Jordan Cunningham unwound cables and set up mics while camera operators chatted busily over tripods and readied video equipment. Meanwhile, The Kora Band had just arrived to prepare for a live concert and webcast from Empty Sea.
After a tour of West Africa with the U.S. State Department’s Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad program, Portland’s Andrew Oliver founded The Kora Band, which blends West African music and jazz. An accomplished jazz musician who had led many jazz groups around the NW, Andrew was changed by his West African tour: “I’ve always loved rhythm and specifically the kind of cyclical rhythmic and harmonic patterns that characterize much of West African music’s core. However, I was not particularly knowledgeable or educated in the specifics of this music before the Rhythm Road trip.
When he got back to the United States, Andrew teamed up with Kane Mathis, a well-respected American kora player, to create The Kora Band. Completing the band are Chad McCullough on trumpet, Brady Millard-Kish on acoustic and electric bass, and Mark DiFlorio on drums and percussion.
The Kora Band has unusual instrumentation for either the United States or West Africa: a classic jazz rhythm section with piano, bass, and drums; a trumpet playing melody lines and solos; and the kora itself. The 21-string harp is the favored instrument of Mali, The Gambia, and Senegal’s griots – the bard-like musicians who compile and maintain West Africa’s oral history through song. In The Kora Band, the kora’s repetitive, rolling grooves serve as a launching point for the rest of the ensemble, creating a base for improvisation and interplay.
Even the classic jazz instruments in the group are often different than one might expect: Mark DiFlorio plays a modified drum kit that includes a djembe and also a calabash, a gourd drum Andrew describes as “the other half of the kora.” Resembling a half-sphere, the calabash can be slapped, pounded, and hit to create many different sounds. Chad McCullough augments his trumpet playing with occasional uses of the pocket trumpet, a comically small version of the instrument which provides a complimentary tone color.
Though the band played many instrumental pieces, a number of tunes featured Kane singing in Gambian Mandinka, one of the official languages of The Gambia. As an American-born musician performing to American audiences, Kane has been asked at times to translate and sing in English. But he explains that the connection between Mandinka and West Africa’s traditional music allows the audience a greater understanding of the musical tradition than if he sang in English. Speaking after the show, Kane said that singing in Mandinka allows him to “share the sonic experience of language.” The specific textures and sounds of Mandinka are linked to the music, augmenting the sound of the kora.
In a constantly shrinking world, The Kora Band believes that the ideas of tradition and change are not contradictory. “I think it’s mainly a western convention to separate a tradition from its modern encounters,” says Kane. “One way traditions really shine is in the keeping of their vocabularies and transmission of their compelling elements in new environments.”
This entire concert is available on demand in HD on Empty Sea Television.
Band members are Andrew Oliver (piano and keyboard), Kane Mathis (kora and guitar), Chad McCullough (trumpet), Brady Millard-Kish (acoustic and electric bass) and Mark DiFlorio (drums and percussion).
“…blends the swing and intellect of American Jazz with the divine poetry of West African Music.”
– The Oregonian
Pianist, composer, and bandleader Andrew Oliver is a rising young musician on the Northwest jazz scene, directing a number of diverse groups in Portland and Seattle. After growing up in Portland, he relocated to New Orleans to study jazz, but was flooded out by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and returned home. He began playing with New Orleans native saxophonist Devin Phillips and long-time New Orleans drummer Mark DiFlorio, who had also relocated to Portland after the storm. In 2007 Devin’s quartet featuring Andrew and Mark was one of ten groups selected from a pool of 200 bands to participate in the U.S. State Department’s Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad program. They toured five West African countries performing, teaching workshops, and working with local musicians as cultural ambassadors of the U.S.
After this unique experience, Andrew was inspired to dive deeper into the relationship between jazz and West African music. His exploration eventually led to the founding of the Kora Band, featuring atypical instrumentation that highlights Kane Mathis on the 21-string Kora, a traditional harp from West Africa. Kane is one of the most accomplished American Kora players, having studied with the famous Jobarteh (Diabate) family in Gambia, in the same compound that produced three generations of the country’s most famous musicians. This study resulted in diplomas and certificates of recognition from Malamini Jobarteh, The Gambian minister of culture, and the President of the Gambia.
In 2009 the ensemble released their debut album “Just 4 U”, which Portland’s Willamette Week called “a gorgeous, moving record” and which the Seattle Weekly said was “one of the better world-music releases to come out of the Northwest all year.” They released their second album, “Cascades,” on Origin Records in September of 2010, which has reached #22 on the JazzWeek Radio Charts. On this new album, the group covers a wide range of traditional Mandinka pieces from across West Africa, modern repertoire from Congo and Cameroon, and new originals by Oliver and Mathis, providing uplifting and unique music that reflects the increasing globalization of today’s world.
We’re also streaming this show live in HD on Empty Sea Television. Click here to learn more and purchase access.
After touring West Africa with the US State Department’s Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad, Andrew Oliver was inspired to dive deeper into the relationship between jazz and West African music. His exploration eventually led to the founding of the Kora Band, featuring atypical instrumentation that highlights Kane Mathis on the 21-string Kora, a traditional harp from West Africa.
How did you begin playing music? What were your initial inspirations and musical leanings?
Kane Mathis: I began with piano in the 2nd grade then moved to guitar in the 5th. I played for 5 years in blues clubs until conservatory and then 20 years of study of Africa and the Middle east.
Andrew Oliver: I started playing when I was about 3 years old on the piano in my parents house. I was initially a huge classical music snob but in high school I began to discover early jazz and ragtime which then led me over the years into many forms of jazz and improvised music. In the past 5 years I have also begun to investigate and incorporate elements of various world music traditions, specifically Mandinka music of West Africa and Tango into various projects.
Kane, how did you begin to play the kora? What is your relationship to Africa and West African culture, and how has it changed in the time that you have been playing the kora?
Kane: I got into Kora because I was listening to a lot of music from South America and was tracing the roots back to sub-Saharan West Africa. Kora does a lot of things I was going for on solo acoustic guitar at the time. There was something about the Mandinka Musical tradition that really grabbed me. I felt as if I could contribute something to it, it made sense to my brain. in 1996 I got the chance to begin making trips to The Gambia to study and I have been going ever since. In 2011 I was recognized as a government sponsored musician by The Republic of The Gambia.
Andrew, what was your relationship to West African music initially and how did that change through your tour with the Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad program?
Andrew: I have always loved rhythm and specifically the kind of cyclical rhythmic / harmonic patterns that characterize much of West African music’s core. However, I was not particularly knowledgeable or educated in the specifics of this music before the Rhythm Road trip. I had a few CDs of famous kora players such as Toumani Diabate so I was excited when a kora player (El Hajj Cissokho) showed up at our sound check at this club in Dakar called Just 4 U. He taught us a traditional song (Kaira, which we still play in the kora band) and we in turn taught him some jazz (a simple blues called Centerpiece). This was an amazing experience and I was really quite surprised at the compatibility of the two styles and instruments. When I got home I called up Kane (who I had met just before the trip through a lucky coincidence) and proposed a collaboration and we began the group at that point along with Mark (who was the drummer on the Rhythm Road trip) and Brady (a longtime collaborator of Mark).
How were the rest of you first drawn to West African music? Did you have experience with it before this group? How has your relationship with both West African music and jazz changed through playing with The Kora Band?
Brady: I was initially drawn to music from South Africa (via Paul Simon’s “Graceland”), and Cameroon, (via Les Tete Brules) in high school. Many years spent playing classical, jazz, R&B, and rock eventually lead me back to world music, several years later. I had no prior experience playing this music before joining the Kora Band, but did have a great appreciation for it/interest in it. As I evolve musically/personally, all of my influences meld together and inform my approach to music.
What does it mean to you to be mixing “traditional” West African music with jazz, a style that was born out of African music and is now seen by many people as “art music”?
Kane: It’s a cliché that, “the only constant is change”. It’s a very very good one, one of my favorites actually. I feel like the tradition of Kora and Mandinka music has adapted marvelously and it is almost useless to examine the cultures musical environment without taking into account all of the influences born upon it over the years. Mandinka music and the culture of Africa in general has been a picture of adaptation for its entire history. I think it’s mainly a western convention to separate a tradition from its modern encounters, that is one way traditions really shine, in the keeping of their vocabularies and transmission of their compelling elements in new environments. Especially since there would be no existing tradition if it didn’t adapt in someway, generally . Musically speaking, In this regard, Africa has excelled. The Kora, for example, has a tuning named after an instrument that isn’t even a part of the Mandinka tradition. The vocal style came from aesthetic influences that were not even African at all initially. Many of my Gambian friends speak 5 languages, why? Because the more languages you speak the easier it is to trade with people from diverse regions thereby expanding your market. Those are 3 examples. The answer to this question being that ‘mixing’ kora music with jazz means to me that I am participating in the long tradition of having a conversation with a modern art form while maintaining the integrity of the traditional vocabulary without compromising what makes it compelling, regardless of context. I don’t feel like we’re bringing jazz “back to Africa” or whatever. The aesthetics have evolved separately enough that a lot of consideration has to go into how they merge. I’m not one of those people who feels like it’s, “All right there” with Africa, the blues, and Jazz and all one has to do is hold one next to the other and “voila!” I think that’s not true.
Andrew: I agree wholeheartedly with what Kane said above. Certainly the status of jazz as a sort of “art music” in America is becoming further cemented every day and I am all for this, especially as it relates to performance, funding, and exposure opportunities for jazz and improvised music. However, all music is born out of tradition and reflects the culture in which it is based so in that sense even “art music” is in some way “traditional.” For me it is not a “colonialist” endeavor in any way to mix these traditions – as you noted they have a strong history and the fact that jazz was born out of west African music reflects how well they work together in this contemporary context. In this day and age, genre boundaries are breaking down rapidly and cross-genre conversation is happening very fluidly all over the world. Just as jazz was itself originally a mixture of musics from a variety of cultures (African, African-American, French Creole, European, Caribbean, etc), what we are doing is to me a natural extension of that sort of cultural mix updated for the 21st century. We are not simply slapping the two musical styles together but are genuinely working to deal authentically with elements of both traditions and build a new hybrid style.
How would you describe your musical identity as a group?
Kane: The Kora Band is a multi-cultural ensemble whose musical products are pushing beyond the novelty of ‘the encounter’.
Andrew: The Kora Band draws on elements of jazz and west African traditional and contemporary music to create a new sound reflecting important elements of both musical traditions and the increasingly globalized world of the 21st century.
Who are some of your current inspirations? Who are you listening to now?
Kane: I am mostly listening to Legowelt, Autechre and a bit of Dutch experimental electronica from around 1950 like Dick Raaijmakers. As far as African music at the moment I am listening to Guelewar and Karantamba from Senegal/Gambia.
Andrew: I am listening to a lot of contemporary jazz at the moment, Vijay Iyer, Steve Lehman, Neil Cowley, Guillermo Klein. Also old and new tango music ranging from Carlos Di Sarli and Osvaldo Pugliese from the 40′s and 50′s to contemporary groups. In the African music realm, Guinean guitar hero Grand Papa Diabate is always on my playlist as well as the Zimbabwean pop group the Bhundu Boys and some more “raw” kora players such as Kausu Kouyate and Sundiolou Cissokho.
What are your hopes for this group? What are your musical goals?
Kane: In my opinion the band has achieved all of the first round of its goals. I think we are retooling in terms of wanting to play as many shows as possible and tour all the time. For this kind of group there are more savvy and economical ways to get ‘out there’. I personally think it would be great if the band could have maximum fluidity between Jazz and World Music markets while simultaneously contributing to the state of new music in some way.
Andrew: We have recently received a commission from Chamber Music America for a new album-length suite of music. I am very excited about getting to work writing and rehearsing this music which we will premiere next fall. I plan to write a suite of tunes based very directly on specific traditional Mandinka tunes but rather than just “covering” those tunes to use elements from them as building blocks for new compositions. I hope this will allow me to explore what makes the traditional music “tick” and how those elements can continue to create a very unique and individual sound for the group. I hope that we can craft a style both in my compositions and in the group improvisational aesthetic that sounds fresh and new and contributes as Kane said to the state of new music.
Tickets: $10 advance, $14 at the door.
Kora kana is a new band playing ancient string music from West Africa, borrowing heavily from griot traditions, rural blues, and mountain music.
Band leader Tyler Richart initially traveled to West Africa to study percussion music with the master djembe player, Famoudou Konate, in 2002. After several weeks of intense study and practice, and then being asked by his teacher to find a more quiet hobby to appease the neighbors, Tyler took up lessons on the 21 string West African harp, the kora.
After learning the basic parts to a couple of songs from his first teacher, Sidiki Yayo, Tyler returned to the states and prepared for his next voyage, a six month trip the the heartland of the kora, The Gambia. Tyler then spent six months during the winter of 2002-2003 studying kora and singing in Brikama, The Gambia, with the family of kora master, Malamini Jobarteh.
A couple of years after his return to the US, Tyler spied a banjo hanging on the wall of a friend, and realized the banjo was a less civilized relative of the kora. Weeks later, his mother called to tell him that she had found one of these primitive drum-guitars at a garage sale, and was buying it for him. Tyler took up a feverish study of the instrument before recognizing it’s inherent limitations and moving on to the guitar and mandolin. In addition, Tyler started to try to sing like the self proclaimed King of Bluegrass, Jimmy Martin, and therefore won over many friends in the bluegrass and mountain music community. One of those friends, Cort Armstrong, had been steeped in the mountain blues styles of the Piedmont region, and was greatly influenced by the Reverend Gary Davis.
Tyler and Cort became fast friends and started playing and singing together. One late night on the porch, after a fair amount of imbibing, Tyler put away his mandolin and brought out his kora, and an old friend of Cort’s, Sean Divine, got out his harmonica. Cort tuned up his resophonic guitar, and the seeds of kora kana were planted. Over the next two years, Tyler would occasionally bring out the kora and show Cort and Sean a traditional song or two. In January of 2011, the final piece of band was added. Kia Armstrong added the upright bass and a badly needed touch of class to the band of haggard musicians. The group started working on arrangements, utilizing the vocal talents of the three men (who are all fantastic singers in their own right), and blending together the sublime vocal harmonies that kora kana has come to be known for.
Kora kana is a real treat for their audiences, blending Americana sensibilities and ancient Manding string music. Tyler sings with a strong emotive voice, tells amusing anecdotes about his travels, and a presents a healthy heaping of the cultural context and meanings of the songs of West Africa. Seeing this band play is a one of a kind experience.
Tickets: $10 advance, $14 at the door.
Seattle-based musician Kane Mathis is one of the country’s leading performers on the Kora, a traditional 21-string harp of the Mandinka people of West Africa. On Nov. 19, he will perform in a duo setting with Portland-based pianist Andrew Oliver. The duo forms part of the 5-piece Kora Band, also led by Oliver, which has been quickly gaining recognition since the September release of their new album Cascades (OA2 Records), which has peaked at #12 on the Mediaguide World Music Radio Charts.
This will be an opportunity to hear the kora and piano in an intimate duo setting outside of the full band. The unlikely combination of these two stringed instruments creates a unique texture of rhythmic and melodic counterpoint which Oliver and Mathis have developed over several years, drawing from jazz influences as well as the traditional repertoire of the Mandinka people and other West African sources.
Tickets: $35 advance / door
Note: The Folklife Masters series tends to sell out quickly. Don’t lose your chance to claim a seat at this one-of-a-kind venue!
Northwest Folklife and Empty Sea Studios are proud to present the third concert in the 2009 Folklife Masters concert series.
Folklife Masters presents one-of-a-kind concerts which bring master musicians from different traditions together to collaborate and inspire on stage. In our intimate 45-seat listening room, every nuance of these masters’ performances can be savored.
A portion of the proceeds go directly to support Northwest Folklife.
Mirah & Kane Mathis: A World of New Traditions
Mirah Tom Tov Zeitlyn has been at the heart of the vibrant Northwest independent music scene ever since her debut album. Signed by legendary underground record label K Records in 1999, her music has always been eclectic, drawing from a myriad of global influences and using musicians from many different backgrounds. In Kane Mathis, Northwest global musician par excellence, Mirah has found the perfect collaborator. Kane is a sublime musician and truly dedicated to the traditions that he studies. Considered a master of the West African harp known as the kora, as well as an excellent Turkish lute (eud) player, Kaneis music is always engaging and subtle. When matched with Mirah’s introspective songwriting, the duo represents the best of Northwest acoustic music. This will be an evening of soul-driven music with roots reaching to the far corners of the earth.
Mirah’s career in music has been more varied and eclectic than nearly any other artist in the world of independent music. Her early albums were an exploration of the territories beyond lo-fi, aiming to transcend technical limitations and to push the boundaries of “indie-rock” towards a more meaningful communicative goal. With each album, Mirah has pushed herself and her music further, like a modern-day sonic explorer. The release of her newest album, (a)spera, saw her collaborating with a wide range of musicians from indie producer Tucker Martine to global percussionist Mehmet Vurkac and Chris Funk of The Decemberists. She collaborated closely with Kane Mathis for this record, resulting in a beautiful duet track, “The Shells”, that featured Kane on kora with Mirahis ethereal vocals. Mirahis artistry defies description, but her music is anchored by her thoughtful songwriting and her beautiful vocals.
A musical renaissance man, Kane Mathis has traveled the globe to immerse himself in some of the world’s most beautiful traditions. Years of study with generous masters has led him to a mastery of his chosen instruments: the Western guitar, the Turkish oud and the Gambian kora. Kane began taking trips to The Gambia, West Africa in 1997 and has continued rigorous study of the Mandinka Kora. Over the past ten years his performances have earned him recognition by the Gambian president, The Gambian minister of culture, and both national television and radio of The Gambia. Not content to devote himself to a single instrument, Kane moved from the kora to the Turkish oud, an ancestor of the Western lute. He studied the oud both in Istanbul and here in Seattle with Oud virtuoso Munir Nurttin Beken, then visiting artist at the University of Washington. Throughout all his musical journeys, Kane brings the same dedicated focus on mastering a purity of sound. This is what makes him such a compelling artist.
Tickets: $13 advance, $15 at the door.
For the Empty Sea Studios performance, the Kora Band will take a more “acoustic” approach, with Mark DiFlorio replacing drumset with a calabash-based percussion setup. Andrew will play Fender Rhodes. The tunes typically featuring Kane on electric guitar will be performed on acoustic. This will make for a unique and intimate set from the Kora Band in a room known for its fine acoustic quality, which promises to accentuate the unique acoustic properties of the kora even more than usual.