By Susan Budig
Amazingly, I’ve found that I have something in common with Bill Gates. We both
have been in the presence of great wealth. The treasures I have immersed myself
in, however, far surpass the impermanence of money. The rich, musical language
of two cultures, Sweden and Senegal, with a dash of American Appalachia filled
my ears and graced my soul at the 5th annual Nordic Roots Festival held recently
at the Cedar Cultural Center in
Minneapolis, Minnesota. The evening left me drenched in a peace-loving spirit.
Saturday’s evening show starts with emcee, Nick Lethert amusing the audience
with droll, self-depreciating comments. His dry wit set the stage for the
Swedish demeanor, in the form of Ellika Frisell, to follow.Frisell and Solo Cissokho (www.jalikunda.com)
perform several numbers from their sole disc, tretakt takissaba, released
in 2002 (Xource). Their first set starts up with Kodinadioulou. I see Frisell
looking very Swedish, with white-blond hair and becomingly pale skin, holding up
the familiar fiddle. She is dressed in a silver pant and tunic suit. Next to
her, stands Cissokho, his kinky, black hair braided and flying out of his head.
Cissokho wears flowing white pants and tunic. The outfit, given to him by his
mother, features intricate detail and trapunto-like embroidery. It stands out as
the traditional clothing of Senegal. He holds a kora, an instrument similar in
sound to the harp, distinctive to the countries of Senegal, Gambia, and Mali.
The visual impression the two of them make is like looking at a piano, with a
sharp visual contrast between the two types of keys. Like a piano, the sound
produced by these two musicians is harmonious and whole.
When I hear the next song, Takissaba, far from being like oil and water,
which are two elements that never mix, Frisell and Cissokho, utterly unique and
on the surface dissimilar, come together to create a sound I’ve never heard
before. Frisell presents her polska, a Swedish dance, and Cissokho layers on his
Senegalese music, adding vocals in his native Mandinka language. Frisell’s
foundation, deceptively simple, is set by the rhythmic, steady saw of the
fiddle. This creates a perfect framework on which Cissokho plays his kora with
child-like abandon. That these two styles can be congruous almost defies logic.
But melodious, they are, in a most agreeable way.
Cissokho comes from a long line of griots, that is, storytellers, from his
West African country. And in this song, we hear a wonderful story about Nouria.
Nouria was a widow and a farmer who lived alone. In her country, when help from
the neighbors was needed, food was offered to those who came to work. Cissokho
saw Nouria needed help, but was unable to afford to feed the neighbors who came
over. Cissokho, in true altruistic fashion, walked from one farm to another
soliciting help for Nouria and in exchange, he played the kora for them. I don’t
know about the cuisine of Senegal, but I now know about the musical flavor and
payment such as Cissokho’s kora playing would entice me to work all day long.
Cissokho composed this next song, about his grandmother, titling it Mama
Tonkara. Frisell, on viola, treats us to a long run during which she closes her
eyes and wanders off into a world of pure sound and notes. Then, Cissokho joins
in and the interplay between the two is a smiling intimacy.
Frisell tells us that as a musician, she travels a lot. One of the good
things to happen as a result is that in 1994, while at a fiddle festival in
London, England, she met a wonderful fiddler named Bruce Molsky. With that
introduction, Molsky strolls up on stage and joins the duet, making an amazing
The three of them play an interesting combination of a Norwegian halling tune
put together with a Senegalese song, Mansami Cissè. Hallings are dance numbers,
generally performed by the men in an effort to impress the women. Mansami Cissè
is a song for a king, as Cissokho tells us, “Every king (in Senegal) gets a
Frisell fades gracefully into the background as Cissokho and Molsky play an
old time duet, Green Grows The Laurel. I am mesmerized by this love song. It is
at times saucy and humorous, absolutely delightful, and it also includes these
two men’s voices, each singing in his own language, simultaneously serenading
the audience. Their rich, earthy voices saturate our senses. The sensation of
wallowing in the musical wealth they offer is very strong.
Before Molsky leaves the stage, he and Frisell play a favorite of mine, Poor
Boy’s Troubles. Tongue in cheek, Molsky temporarily renames the tune, Poor
Woman’s Troubles. As always, this number is enormously inspiring. Adding
Cissokho’s kora to the mix deepens its vibrancy.
Cissokho lives in Oslo, Norway. Frisell makes her home in Sweden.
Occasionally, their flights do not put them in the same place at the same time,
as desired. While waiting for Cissokho to arrive for rehearsal, this next song,
composed by Frisell, emerged. The Violin Is Waiting For The Kora is a
challenging tune, each player displays enticing virtuosity. Serendipity at its
Frisell doesn’t sing on stage often, but during this next piece, Saara,
Cissokho engages his music mate to sing along in her delicate, clear tones. I
think of the flora of Sweden with its petite, fragile flowers blossoming during
its short growing season. This describes Frisell’s singing. Just a bit of
vocalizing, and very pleasant.
Their part of the show, which is the opener for Filarfolket, begins to wind
down. The audience, on the other hand, can’t stop begging for more. Molsky comes
back up on stage and has the delightful experience (I’m sure) of playing along
with Frisell and Cissokho on a piece that he’s never heard before.
We learn a bit more about the kora, which has 22 strings and is played with
the thumb and forefinger of each hand. Cissokho dissects his playing style,
suggesting that it is basic building blocks of rhythm played on top of one
another. He lost me on the idea of simplicity after he’d plucked about four
The last song, Kaira, is a peace song and after hearing both Frisell and
Cissokho sing together in Mandinka, we applaud until our hands are numb and our
souls are rejuvenated, rich beyond measure.