When you imagine a musician capable of playing the 21-stringed West African kora well enough to record an entire album of solo pieces, you might have an idea of what to expect. Whether we’re talking the great Diabatés, Kouyatés and Sissokos of Mali, or a Gambian master like the late Alhadji Bai Konte, the repertoire is apt to be familiar. It will largely or entirely be derived from the venerable Mande canon of compositions, going back to “Sunjata” in 1235. What will differentiate the players’ recordings will be matters of tone, interpretation, articulation, improvisation and chops. Fair enough, but none of that will prepare you for John Hughes.
Hughes is an American living in Brattleboro, Vermont. He taught himself to play the kora just by listening and watching. He has never traveled to Africa to study, or learned from a Mande master. Yet he has learned extremely well. More to the point, he has developed his own repertoire and style, wonderfully on display on this, his fourth solo album.
What is so impressive about Hughes’ work is the way he has absorbed so much of the stylistic language of Mande kora music, and yet freed himself to compose within the idiom, with few direct references to the canon. But although he is creating anew, Hughes still reveals deep familiarity with the idiom. He doesn’t wander into overly experimental or New Age territory, as he easily might.
He opens with a reimagined take on the classic “Jarabi,” recognizable only by the rhythm of the underlying ostinato. The moody modality and elegant melodies are his own. “Tuareg Peace” uses the rhythm of the Tuareg/Songhai takamba dance, though you might miss that were the title not to clue you in. “Behind the Yellow Line” superbly contrasts legato sustained melodies and sharp percussive dead notes in the accompaniment. And in a playful piece called “The Finch and the Python,” you can easily imagine these two creatures interacting within the bipolar rhythmic and melodic structure.
Hughes’s tone is excellent, and he’s fully in command of his demanding instrument. This is not knock-your-socks-off, flashy kora playing, but it is confident, original, and above all, highly musical. Visit http://johnhughesarts.com/johnhughesmusic/Welcome.html for more.