If you traveled to various corners of the world, played word association with its far-flung inhabitants and said, “Britpop,” the majority would respond “Oasis.” You might get some competition from Blur and others on the continent or in Japan, but Oasis is the Britpop representative best-known in the USA, and the USA has nuclear-level marketing reach.
Note that the word “nuclear” was carefully chosen and is intended to convey all its meanings.
I’ve already reviewed all their studio albums, but I couldn’t do a Britpop series justice without including Oasis. Luckily, I had their concert album in my back pocket, where they cover nearly all their hits from the Britpop era.
My review of Familiar to Millions is somewhat colored by my experience: I have seen Oasis live four times in my brief existence:
- June 19, 1997, Oakland Coliseum, Oakland, California: I loathe outdoor stadium concerts and despised the Be Here Now album, but they were in town, I could get there on BART, I’d never seen them, so what the fuck. The sound wasn’t great and the thing I remember most was Liam wearing white tennis shoes that were terribly unsexy.
- August 6, 2000, Arlene Schnitzler Concert Hall, Portland, Oregon: A wealthy dermatologist I was dating took me for my nineteenth birthday. He really went all out—we flew first class, had Dom Perignon waiting for us at the Benson Hotel and sat in second-row seats for Oasis. I returned the favor with a couple of thank-you fucks, dated him for another couple of months but ended it before he could give me a Tiffany engagement ring for Christmas. Nice guy, good-looking, shallow as a rain puddle, entire identity wrapped around his wealth and status. As for Oasis, they put on a great performance despite the weak material from Standing on the Shoulder of Giants—the set list on this live album is pretty close to what I heard that night, minus the crowd size and energy of Wembley. At this stage in their career, Oasis was no longer considered a top-tier band in the States, and were generally booked for venues in the 3000 to 5000 seat range. I liked that.
- September 9, 2005, Everett Events Center, Everett, Washington: This was a flight on my own dime and worth every penny—this was the Don’t Believe the Truth concert and I consider that album to be their masterpiece. They were on fire from the get-go and never let up, with the presence of Zak Starkey on drums infinitely improving the band’s tightness and punch. The venue was hardly top-tier and I remember Noel asking the crowd, “We were told we’d be playing Seattle—where the fuck is this place?”
- August 26, 2008, WaMu Theatre, Seattle: This took place after I moved to Seattle. The venue sucked—it felt more like a school cafeteria than a theatre. Oasis management seriously fucked up on this one—the band prepared a setlist heavy on songs from Dig Out Your Soul and the geniuses who set up the tour scheduled several concerts before the album was released! Though I was hearing several of the songs for the first time, “Shock of the Lightning” left quite an impression.
I also saw Beady Eye at the Showbox in Seattle on November 30, 2011. I recall that a member of the audience almost lost his member after slapping me in the ass and that it took Liam about six songs to find the right key. Despite the presence of three Oasis alumni, Beady Eye did not play a single Oasis number, but their first album was energetic enough to make for a relatively satisfying experience.
Oasis has been called a working-class band, and they certainly lived up to that label in concert. Oasis concerts feature very little in the way of pyrotechnics and nothing in the way of choreography—they pretty much just fucking play. Liam’s singing stance rarely varies: he puts his hands behind his back, twists his torso a bit, leans forward into the mike and sings. Noel is usually stage left with his guitars at the ready. The only “additional entertainment” is found in the song introductions, which fall into three categories: perfunctory, unintelligible or insulting (the insults are directed at random people in the audience). They rarely invite crowd participation because they usually don’t need to—the crowd at an Oasis concert consider themselves one of the largest choruses ever assembled, and they join in from the get-go.
Familiar to Millions primarily consists from the performances at Wembley on June 21, 2000, with some vocal overdubs inserted from other concerts in spots where Liam fucked up the lyrics. He always fucked up the second verse of “Acquiesce,” insisting on the documentary DVD for Don’t Believe the Truth that he’d never heard that verse in his life, in defiance of recorded evidence to the contrary. I don’t think anyone has found the Rosetta Stone that holds the key to Liam’s brain; I’ve always thought of him as intuitive-emotional and rather “childlike,” with all the blessings and curses associated with that adjective. When he’s in the mood, though, he’s one of the best rock vocalists on record, and for most of Familiar to Millions, he’s in the mood.
His brother told The Daily Telegraph, “I like to think I keep it real. Liam keeps it surreal, and somewhere between the two we get on all right.” Noel’s feet are generally more firmly attached to terra firma, but he also has the tendency to say whatever is on his mind and you can go fuck yourself if you’ve got a problem with that, mate. He is eminently quotable, the master of the sound bite with bite, oscillating between self-deprecation and self-promotion. He has described his guitar-playing at “average at fucking best,” but sends modesty on holiday with observations like, “Look. I was a superhero in the ’90s. I said so at the time. McCartney, Weller, Townshend, Richards, my first album’s better than all their first albums. Even they’d admit that.” Putting aside his arrogance and aggressive defensiveness (adjectives that apply equally to both brothers), Noel Gallagher managed to write some of the greatest songs of the era and never wavered in his commitment to the sadly dying art of guitar-based rock ‘n’ roll.
People who don’t care for Oasis tell me it has more to do with the Gallagher Brothers being assholes than the music; some people won’t even listen to Oasis because of the assholity factor. Having struggled through a love-hate relationship with Oasis for twenty-odd years, I can appreciate those feelings, but what frustrates me is not so much their boorishness but their bipolar tendencies. That is not a clinical diagnosis, but an observation of a pattern of good boy/bad boy behavior present throughout their history—a pattern demonstrated on this particular album. The Wembley concert was part of the tour to promote the album Standing on the Shoulder of Giants—an album title that acknowledges the band’s debt to The Beatles and the other great British bands of the 60’s. Then again, who but Oasis would give their live album a title like Familiar to Millions? Even if it’s true, why the fuck do you want to go there?
Sigh. Enough psychologizing. All I know is this: whenever I’ve seen Oasis live, I forget all about that crap and sing along at the top of my lungs with everybody else.
Let’s get on with it! One last note: in addition to the album, you can get a DVD with the entire gig and various “special features.” The sound on the DVD isn’t as good as the CD or the vinyl (which Discogs currently priced at $397.33), but the review includes references to what’s happening on stage when I think it’s helpful.
A tape of “Fucking in the Bushes” would become the standard call to arms opening Oasis concerts, the pounding drums and ripping guitar a signal to those off taking a piss that they’ve got three minutes to get their asses back to where the action is. During the intro, the cameras pans the crowd, a rather scrawny looking bunch obviously thrilled to see their heroes. Displaying a complete lack of attention to the finer points of fashion, Liam struts on stage wearing hippie-style shades and a blue denim jacket over a hoodie while Noel appears in what looks like a thick brown shirt pulled from the back of his closet over a pinkish top. Liam warms up the crowd with typical ramblings, saying something about a “shithole” and “Hello, Manchester.” With everyone in place, Alan White dutifully plays the drum intro to “Go Let It Out,” the lead single from the album. Liam betrays his excitement through his off-kilter breathing rhythm, but the crowd of around 80,000 people don’t notice because they’re already singing at the tops of their lungs. When the bass is called on to join in, the audience goes nuts, as they should—Andy Bell is a hundred times the bass player Guigsy was. The highlight of the performance is when Liam sings the line, “Ordinary people that are like you and me,” pointing to self then audience to emphasize common roots. Second new band member Gem Archer joins in the fun by delivering the first guitar solo, handing it over to Noel on his Gibson Les Paul for the second passage. Although it’s far from my favorite Oasis song, “Go Let It Out” gets the job done, leaving the crowd in the early stages of ecstasy.
Noel switches to the Rickenbacker for the second track on the Standing album, the drone song, “Who Feels Love,” supported by non-member Zeben Jameson on synthesizer. I mentioned in my review of that album that the studio version is a pale imitation of the live version, and listening to this album confirms what I heard in Portland. Bass whore that I am, I thrill to the deep, filling sound of Andy Bell’s bass in the same way I thrill to the deep, filling feeling of a hard one stretching my vaginal walls. Oasis would become masters of the drone song as demonstrated on Dig Out Your Soul and their surprisingly strong cover of “Within You, Without You,” and in this context it serves to get the rhythm section in sync and ready to rock.
Our first trip down memory lane begins when Liam announces “Supersonic.” The crowd immediately begins to move their butts along with the opening drum beat, breaking out into an ecstatic cry of pleasure when Noel delivers the arpeggiated intro. EVERYONE is singing the quirky lyrics at the top of their lungs, as if they’ve been holding back the orgasm for just the right moment. The band immediately launches into “Shakermaker,” a song I’ve always loathed, but I have to admit they play it very well here, rocking hard enough to make me temporarily forget that the song is based on a fucking Coke commercial.
Right on cue, Liam fucks up the lyrics to “Acquiesce,” but fortunately his part is relegated to the verses while his brother sings the far more important chorus. You can hear the difference in the crowd vocals—the sing-along isn’t quite as strong as it was on the previous two songs, but when Noel steps up to the mike and delivers his lines in an exceptionally clear voice, the accompanying chorus rises to a new dynamic peak:
Because we need each other
We believe in one another
I know we’re gonna discover
What’s sleeping in our soul
Noel literally saves the day here, leaving the crowd in a state of post-orgasmic delight.
Liam heads off for a smoke and a piss while Noel takes the lead on the Stevie Wonder imitation song, “Step Out.” While I appreciate the way he and Gem kick ass on the guitar parts, I always get distracted in the chorus, which is a musical duplication of “Uptight.” Liam finds his way back to the stage for the third song from Standing, the meh piece “Gas Panic.” Unlike me, the crowd seems to enjoy itself, but this is the part of the concert where I follow Liam’s example and head to the wings for physiological relief. I return to the sound of Noel telling a guy in the audience, “If she starts getting out of line, slap her,” followed by an energetic rendition of “Roll With It.” Neither Noel’s sentiments nor the song bring a smile to my face, but I get over it when I see a woman with exposed DD-cup bubs displaying her assets while perched on the shoulders of strapping young lad. There had been some unintelligible stage banter about tits earlier in the program, perhaps inspiring the young lady to liberate her fabulous knockers from bondage and share them with the world—and for that, we can all be grateful.
“Stand By Me” gets the crowd back in focus, with the slowly spinning hypnotic lights serving to soften and sweeten the accompanying vocals. Liam gives one of his best performances of the night, and as the camera zooms in, you can see the sweat on his neck and lengthy mane. Noel slaps a capo on the second fret (funny, I always thought it was supposed to be the third fret) for “Wonderwall,” with the audience response meter hitting the red zone. I think the response here has to do with their love of the song itself and nothing to do with Liam’s rather sloppy delivery. The song is so iconic that it could stand the mangling, but really, Liam should have risen to the moment and treated this song with due respect.
Once again, Noel rescues his brother with a long low-string tease on the Les Paul that ends when he climbs atop the monitors and delivers the equally iconic opening riff to “Cigarettes and Alcohol.” Apparently panicked that his brother has taken him out of the limelight, Liam responds to the challenge with a strong and playful vocal accompanied by his energetic tambourine, earning himself full forgiveness. I respond enthusiastically to the editorial aside he inserts after “But all I found is cigarettes and alcohol,” where, with unusually precise diction he observes, “Which isn’t a bad thing!” “Fuck yeah!” I respond in unladylike fashion. The crowd sings with guilt-free delight to a great performance of one of the great rock songs of all time.
Noel introduces the next song by visually demonstrating the size of his johnson by holding his outstretched hands far beyond his shoulders, dedicating the piece to “everyone with a little dick.” That might seem like a rather crass way to introduce one of the most beautiful and enduring works of the Britpop era, but there you have it. Once Jameson enters with the instantly-recognized piano introduction to “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” the audience responds in a unified voice tempered with affection and get themselves ready for their greatest performance of the night.
While Noel is in exceptionally fine voice, your attention is immediately drawn to the responding intensity of the collective vocals from the audience. What’s truly stunning is that they’re not just singing at the top of their lungs but varying their dynamics with each line, lowering and raising their voices in all the right places. They start out strong on the opening lines, back off during the pre-chorus transition, then take deep, justifiable pleasure in belting out one of the great belt-out lines of all time—“You ain’t ever going to burn my heart out.” What happens next is absolutely magical—Noel, sensing that the crowd’s got this one, drops out of the picture entirely and lets the audience take the entire chorus. Stimulated by the sounds of their collective voices, they raise their volume even higher to indicate their acceptance of the challenge. It is a thrilling moment that never fails to bring tears to my eyes, as does the stop-time closing passage where the audience solos on the coda (“Don’t look back in anger/Don’t look back in anger/I heard you say”), then Noel repeats the coda to light guitar accompaniment. While the applause rolls across the stadium, he ends the song gently on that sweet line, “At least not today.” Even for the brash and often bombastic Noel Gallagher, that kind of validation for songwriter and song had to be a deeply satisfying experience.
Nothing can possibly top that collective performance, but Liam gives it a shot with “Live Forever,” one of Oasis’ contributions to the youth movement sub-theme of Britpop. The song is well-played and Liam is excellent voice, but I’m still feeling the after-effects of “Don’t Look Back in Anger” and can’t process it. Liam has already initiated the bullshit ritual associated with encores by announcing “Live Forever” as “the last song,” but I think the ruse would have been more effective had the band walked off after “Don’t Look Back in Anger” and left the audience begging frantically and sincerely for more.
As it is, Oasis doesn’t take the audience to higher levels of excitement during the three-song encore, making it something of a disappointment. The cover of Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My” was an odd choice that inspired only obligatory applause. Liam’s rendition of “Champagne Supernova” is excellent, but it’s a song designed to evoke nostalgic regret rather than raise one’s spirits. The concert ends with the first song on their first album, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,” where Oasis leaves it all on the stage in one last solid rock ‘n’ roll thrust before strolling off the stage.
For reasons both unknown and incomprehensible, the album compilers added an 18th track from a concert that took place on the other side of the world (in Florida, of all places) two months before Wembley—their cover of “Helter Skelter.” What the fuck, people? Not only does this unattached appendage interfere with the experience of closure we all want to feel at the end of a concert, but the Oasis version of “Helter Skelter” certainly isn’t going to make anyone forget about Paul McCartney’s last foray into manic rock.
Familiar to Millions came out a few years after the Britpop obituaries started coming out, so one has to wonder if the enthusiastic reaction of the crowd to the old favorites was a manifestation of nostalgia, a word defined as “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.” While that may have been operating on some level for some people, I don’t think nostalgia had much to do with the audience response. I’ve noticed that songs that bring up memories of my wayward teens are clearly period pieces with no enduring value whatsoever, rather like the colorful iMacs and retro fashions of the mid-to-late 90’s. I ran this theory by my parents, and both agreed that listening to the Beatles, Kinks or Stones doesn’t trigger any longing for black lights, granny glasses or sit-ins, but hearing one-hit wonders like Barry McGuire and the Strawberry Alarm Clock does.
No, the people singing the hosannas you hear on Familiar to Millions aren’t indulging in sweet memories of exuberant youth, but expressing deep appreciation for great songs that inspire full-throated listener accompaniment. That’s as true for Oasis as it is for Pulp, Blur, Supergrass, Suede and other Britpop artists who rose above the era’s hype to create compelling music that will live forever.
I’ve mentioned previously that Sunday mornings are my precious alone time when I reflect and rejuvenate to give me the strength I need to face the grunge of the workweek. The soundtrack for my Sunday morning ritual is designed to be soothing, consisting largely of classical guitar pieces by Segovia, Sharon Isbin and Christopher Parkening, and Celtic harp performed by a variety of artists but heavy on works composed by Turlough O’Carolan. When I lived in the States, the crossword in the New York Times Sunday Magazine was part of that ritual; when I moved to France, I switched to mots croisés and mots fléchés. The problem I faced with French crosswords is that I am relatively uneducated (and uninterested) in French history, making them more of a chore than a challenge. The solution to wasting Sunday mornings with Talleyrand, Léon Blum and obscure figures from the Second Republic was to reassign mots croisés to air travel and use that quiet time for French newspapers and the sounds of plucked, struck and strummed strings.
A couple of years ago, I integrated In the Heart of the Moon into the rotation, with wondrous results. About thirty seconds into the first song I lose all interest in the latest strikes, parliamentary debates or whatever else the French are bitching about, toss the paper on the floor, close my eyes and immerse myself in the magical music. In the Heart of the Moon is simply one of the most beautiful recordings I’ve ever heard.
Many Westerners know the late guitarist Ali Farka Touré from his marvelous blues-roots albums and the collaboration with Ry Cooder, Talking Timbuktu. Toumani Diabaté is somewhat less familiar, but is recognized as one of the greatest living players of the kora, an instrument that defies many Western paradigms related to string instruments.
I am fascinated by the ingenuity human beings have applied to the creation of musical instruments, but if you’re not, feel free to skip this section to get to the review.
From a distance, the kora resembles a sitar, but the kora’s twenty-one strings (usually nylon) are divided into two opposing sets (eleven on the left side and ten on the right) that gradually rise above the neck the further down they go, like delicate twin cable suspension bridges. The distance between string and neck is significant enough to make it impractical to change notes by pressing the strings onto the neck as you do with a guitar, and like the violin family, the neck is fretless. The notes, percussive sounds and chords result from the player using the thumb and index finger on both hands while the other three fingers on each hand rest on supporting posts. The kora does have tuning pegs, an innovation of the early 60’s that caused a great deal of controversy in the kora-playing universe. Even with the tuning pegs, the nature of the instrument is such that the player is restricted to four scales that come close to syncing with our major and minor scales as well as the Lydian scale that often pops up in modern jazz. That’s assuming you can tune the instrument—word has it that the tuning of a kora is as close to the Sisyphus myth as a musician can get, and many a wannabe kora player has responded to the effort by just saying, “Fuck it.” The base of the kora consists of a large calabash sliced in half and wrapped in cow skin, through which those resting posts travel to provide stable footing. There is a soundhole, but unlike a guitar, the soundhole is located on the side instead of the front. The sound is somewhere between a lute and a harp, but brighter. Modern kora players have access to electric versions of the instrument, which allows for the possibility of pedals and other gizmos to further shape the sound.
I don’t know why anyone would do that, because the kora is perfectly beautiful in its natural state. As I researched the kora for this piece, I watched videos of Diabaté a hundred times and couldn’t for the life of me figure out how he created such wonderful sounds. This is because playing the kora is a three-dimensional experience, and the standard front-and-center camera angle prevented me from seeing what his fingers were doing behind the scenes. Fortunately, I found an unusually engaging scholarly article on the kora authored by one William Ridenour who helped shed some light on kora technique:
There are two main ways to play pieces on the kora, and these are described as kumbengo and birimitingo. Kumbengo is best described as a basic pattern or an accompaniment pattern. Kumbengo is the foundation of a piece, and one cycle of kumbengo is repeated over and over, usually with variation. Sometimes a kumbengo is developed from the vocal melody of the piece (Knight).
“Accompaniment-type playing involves an ensemble relationship between the fingers or hands of one or more musicians in which African aesthetics of polyrhythm find full expression” (Charry 167). Kumbengo patterns are often disrupted by another way of playing, involving fast descending melodic flourishes which are often highly ornamented. This type of playing is called birimitingo, a word possibly of onomatopoeic origins. When pieces are performed, the player alternates between the two styles at his or her will, depending on the demands of the particular situation.
Occasionally the kumbengo is punctuated by a knock on the hand support by the right index finger in a technique called bulukondingo podi. Another type of knock, konkong (Charry calls it “konkondiro”), is more common; it is a timekeeping pattern tapped on the round side of the kora by an apprentice or a male singer (Knight).
Techniques and Roles of the Playing Fingers
Generally, the left thumb plays strings 1-8 on the left side, and the left index finger plays strings 6-11. On the right side, the thumb plays strings 1-5, and the right index finger plays strings 2-10. There is quite a bit of crossover between thumbs and fingers on the same side, especially with the technique of birimitingo. In addition, there are two predominant ways to pluck a string: open and muted. To create a kumbengo, the thumbs play a bass line, while the fingers play a treble melody; the instrument is intrinsically polyphonic. The pitches ascend in 3rds on both sides of the bridge, facilitating the playing of two- to four-note chords, rapid scalar passages (fingers or thumbs in alternation) and octave doubling (Knight and Charry 158).
Translation: If you want to become a great kora player, prepare to devote your entire life to practice. As it turns out, that’s pretty much how kora players have been developed for centuries due to the caste systems common in many locales on the African continent (the Mandé caste, in this instance). According to Wikipedia, Diabaté comes from a long line of “70 generations of musicians preceding him in a patrilineal line.” Even if you only credit a generation with thirty years of existence, that translates into 2100 years of male-only kora playing. The generational sexism was broken recently by one of his cousins, Sona Jobarteh, whose album Fasiya integrated the kora with pop sensibilities.
The twelve songs on In the Heart of the Moon are marked by incredibly simple chord patterns consisting of one, two or three common chords. Over half the songs are in the key of F major, a key frequently used in kora music; only one song is in a minor key, D minor, which happens to be the complement to F major. Touré generally provides the baseline accompaniment through a simple, repetitive arpeggio, graciously giving his younger friend plenty of room to maneuver (though he does insert some sweet licks from time to time). The variety in the music comes largely from the kora, especially during those birimitingo passages where the flurry of notes sound like the aural equivalent of shooting stars on a clear summer night.
The songs and playing styles come from a period in Malian musical history called Jamana Kura, or “New Age/Era.” Jamana Kura emerged in Mali’s pre-independence period, a style marked by “a lighter more popular feel than the old Mandé griot classics” (according to the liner notes). To my ears, the song structures are reminiscent of the folk music of Britain and France, simple but highly melodic compositions that support folk dance. Jamana Kura also introduced a new, highly-rhythmic finger-picking guitar style that arose from a merger of other stylistic traditions; Touré takes this a step further with his grounding in the blues, further intensifying the rhythmic patterns. The result is true world music, a style simpatico with Western and African sensibilities.
Translation: you won’t hear anything on In the Heart of the Moon that feels too “foreign” to you.
The album was recorded in a hotel conference room in Bamako without rehearsals in three days, and given the fact that these two giants of African music had only played together briefly prior to what Touré called “A very important meeting in the realm at the heart of the moon,” it’s only natural that the festivities begin with a warm-up song in the key of F major, “Debe.” The song’s origins are ancient, dating back to the 17th Century, and the music is almost childlike in its simplicity and ability to delight the listener. Touré begins the piece with a nimble run echoing the melodic structure before dropping into a simple arpeggio that forms the dominant theme. You hear Diabaté enter about twenty seconds into the song, and soon he teases us with a short sample of birimitingo that makes you tingle with delight.
Don’t worry, folks, the kid is just warming up.
About halfway through the song, Diabaté gives us a longer sample of the birimitingo technique, and what I find simply amazing is how tightly he controls the length of each note to ensure that it doesn’t get in the way of the next one—hundreds of notes, each clean, clear and absolutely beautiful. You hear Touré say something to Diabaté after this stunning rush, and though I’m not sure which of the seven Malian languages Touré had mastered is in play here, the liner notes tell us “Ali praised Toumani as the rightful heir to the Mandé tradition.” The genuine respect and affection shared by these two brilliant musicians is on full display in the live version of “Debe,” where you can also see the kora in action:
“Kala” opens up with another Touré blitz that sounds very reminiscent to the intro to “Debe” until he forces the rhythm into a detour and winds up playing a rather jaunty, joyful pattern based on an F-C major chord structure. Diabaté’s approach is more varied here, introducing bright, complementary chording in addition to the bursts of birimitingo. Towards the end of the song, Diabaté repeats a chord that is slightly out of scale but marvelously harmonic, adding a slight bit of tension to the mix. This is another song guaranteed to bring a smile to your face—a playful, hummable, childlike delight.
Ry Cooder joins the party on “Mamadou Boutiquier,” an ode to Mandé traders who helped spread the Mandé language and Islamic traditions across West Africa. Toure’s introduction here is somewhat clipped, leading to a more integrated duet. Cooder is listed as playing “Kawai piano,” but the sounds you hear are distant hints of breathy organ, indicating the presence of an electronic keyboard. Once again, the song is built around an F-C major combination with a bit more flair in the rhythm due to the 6/8 time signature. The waltz-like beat adds a certain formality to the music, reminding you more of Vienna than Timbuktu.
Next up is “Monsieur le Maire de Niafunké,” a song celebrating Ali Farka Touré’s ascension to Mayor of the town of Niafunké, a small village on the Niger where he lived during his infancy. Unlike a certain U. S. President who shall remain nameless, Touré did not use his brief time in power to enrich himself but to improve the roads, build a sewer system and install an electric generator—all on his own dime. Imagine that! Diabaté opens this song with a light, nimble arpeggio to set a celebratory mood; Touré steps in to fill the humble supporting role and free Diabaté to do his thing. This is Diabaté’s most diverse performance on the record, combining varied phrasing on the rhythmic pattern with joyful injections of melodic birimitingo and the occasional chord. The fade to the song can only be described as sweet, a gradual diminuendo that communicates tender respect before Diabaté graciously hands off the lead role to Touré for the short closing pattern.
We finally see a key change (to D-A major) with “Kaira” (peace), a song popularized in the 40’s and 50’s by Diabaté’s father (also a kora player, as dictated by tradition). Touré handles the rhythm, adding a syncopated kick to liven things up a bit, and although percussion was present on the two previous tracks, the shaker is much more noticeable here, giving the piece a touch of samba. The jaw-dropping moment comes at the halfway point when Diabaté goes on an extended birimitingo at breakneck speed, then returns a few seconds later as if nothing particularly remarkable had happened. One feature of In the Heart of the Moon I hope people appreciate is the utter humility of the musicians—this isn’t the “ego-based music” George Harrison identified as the major irritant in modern music (a view to which I fully subscribe), but two men putting their egos aside in the service of creation.
“Simbo” returns to the F-C pattern, enhanced with breaks where two and three-note chords are played in a varied, syncopated pattern. Another strong duet with amazing kora-guitar harmonies, Diabaté varies his solos with unexpected pauses, sequential triplets and even long periods of silence to allow Touré to reaffirm the beat. The note patterns have a slightly Mexican feel to my ears, but I’d have to compare scores to understand why—and kora music is notoriously difficult to score. For the most part, I’m quite content to let music theory go to hell for a while and just let this exquisite music course through my soul.
The greatest departure from the baseline comes with “Ai Ga Bani,’ (I Love You), the only vocal piece on the album. Here we shift to a three chord pattern in D minor that marks a surprising but welcome shift in the mood from inspirational to erotic. Touré opens with high-note runs similar to the first two songs on the album, then descends at the point where the minor key is established. He punctuates that change with a strong WHACK on the strings, communicating sexual tension near the boiling point. I’ll state the obvious and tell you this is by far the sexiest piece on the album, with the erotic feel intensified by the passionate sincerity Touré brings to his vocal. Ry Cooder again adds the breathy sounds while Diabaté and Touré provide contrasting fills—Diabaté’s full of mystery, Touré’s loaded with blues-inspired earthiness.
You may have figured out that the Jamana Kura had little to do with colonial resistance or the politics of the independence movement. Many of the songs from the period were devoted to expressions of love, and though the performances here are wordless, you can feel the tenderness and joy in the music. “Soumbo Ya Ya” is one such song, featuring a melodic line that rises and falls with the peaks and valleys of human emotion. Touré provides the dominant line while Diabaté dazzles us with intensely beautiful flurries that sound positively magical. It’s followed by the more reflective but sweetly passionate arrangement of “Naweye Toro,” a song that differentiates itself from the others with the brief appearance of a C7 chord in the middle of the F-C major pattern to add a spot of tension before arriving at the affirming resolution. I love Touré’s guitar on this piece—calming and earthy, reminiscent of gentle bluegrass music.
The last three songs are all traditional songs arranged by Touré, beginning with the sprightly “Kadi Kadi,” a cascade of intense, active runs that fill the soundscape like exploding blossoms. Diabaté is on fire here, responding to the quick tempo with confidence and remarkable dexterity. You definitely hear the country blues influence in Toure’s picking on “Gomni,” a song that feels more Texas than Mali. Touré’s playing is fluid, insistent and powerfully rhythmic, an open invitation to musicians and listeners to let the world go to hell and just fall in love with the music (the brief applause at the end of the song is pleasingly affirming). In the Heart of the Moon ends with “Hawa Dolo,” a meditation using an F-Bb-C pattern that employs the kind of slow arpeggios you hear on pop songs of the early 60’s like “Angel Baby” and “The End of the World.” Ry Cooder makes an appearance with a Ripley stereo guitar, producing sounds that form a deep background, making the acoustic guitar and kora sound even brighter. The feel of the song is rather sad, but tenderly so, expressing the ever-present regret of “all good things must end.”
The music on In the Heart of the Moon is intensely captivating, an alluring invitation to the listener to explore and learn more about Malian music and culture. Bamako is definitely on my list of future vacation itineraries, but right now the country is going through yet another period of instability and it simply isn’t safe for a white French woman to visit. Despite the capability of music to transcend cultural differences and build bridges between people, political considerations always seem to get in the way.
My urge to visit Mali coincides with a parallel wish—the wish that I had been there when they made In the Heart of the Moon. I’ll let producer Nick Gold explain why (from the liner notes):
. . . at two o’clock the next day Ali and Toumani were sitting opposite each other, close together, instruments were tuned, microphones were placed, sound levels were set and off they went.
Each of them would suggest or remind the other of a song by playing the first few notes of the melody and that was basically it. Beyond the basic song structures, it was completely improvised. If one of them wanted to take a solo, he’d nod to the other. At times it seemed like they were just sitting on a groove (albeit a wonderful groove). Then one of them would start damping a string, the other would follow suit, and you had this very detailed interaction that I didn’t fully appreciate until we got to the mixing stage. Every single note that both of them played was absolutely meant. For three days every afternoon they played for an hour or two. This sessions were very relaxed, but the concentration between the two of them was intense . . . There were no second takes. Nothing was edited . . . They hardly spoke during the sessions. They didn’t need to. Sometimes I had the thrilling experience of eavesdropping on a moment of very special and intimate communication. Listening to this record, you’d think they’d played together all their lives, yet they’d played for a total three hours before this—spread over fifteen years.
I’d be so completely absorbed by the music. We needed absolute quiet in the room while they were recording since the kora is such a very quiet instrument. A song would end and you’d realize you’d been holding your breath, hypnotized. It was terrible when those sessions ended. I wish I could have afternoons like that every day of my life, with the most sublime music just going on—forever.