The broad folk resonance of Kairaba | Music Feature | Indy Week
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The broad folk resonance of Kairaba 

In the opening frames of the music video for Kairaba's "Mali Sadio," a fishing boat in stark silhouette cruises across the glittering horizon just off the coast of Mbour, Senegal. Back on the beach, the five members of Kairaba pose on rocks alongside the Atlantic surf, outfitted with their instruments—a strange assortment of kora, djembe, drumsticks, bass and electric guitars.

The camera moves down dusty streets, past graffiti, through flowering bougainvillea archways and inside a bar tiled with a mosaic of a baobab tree. "Au Programme: Diali Cissokho & Kairaba!," a sign proclaims. Women in long red skirts dance to Kairaba's drum break.

"Senegal is built for video," says drummer Austin McCall. "There's just so many beautiful and gorgeous things there that attract your eye and your imagination."

McCall captured a lot of the images that ended up in the video during the month or so that Kairaba spent in Senegal last winter. Having recorded their debut studio album in October, they took it on tour to Africa. When they weren't performing, they were living the sounds constantly in a rented hotel on the beach in Mbour, with bandleader Diali Cissokho and his griot family of professional musicians.

"One thing I want you to know, my band is not just a band. It's a family," explains Cissokho, the band's kora player and vocal frontman who emigrated to North Carolina from Senegal in 2009. The CD release party for Resonance, this Saturday at the Cat's Cradle, celebrates a milestone for the one-year-old band, a precocious West African presence on North Carolina's music scene. "These guys love me a lot. [Resonance] is not my first CD, but it's my first CD in the U.S. with these musicians, and I'm so excited about that. I never imagined I would find a band like this."

Cissokho founded Kairaba with four local musicians—McCall, Will Ridenour, Jonathan Henderson and John Westmoreland—as a loose but passionate experiment in January 2011. Pretty soon, it took off like a teenager on growth hormones, honing in on a sound that fuses traditional Manding and Wolof griot songs with North American influences and personal styles. The members agree that an extraordinary if unlikely sense of kinship galvanizes their sound.

"The communication aspect of the band is really, really precious to us. I mean to have a family, you gotta have some good communication," echoes McCall.

Ridenour shares similar sentiments: "We try to really be intentional about the way we live this project together. We're constantly bouncing things off each other, and trying to not just have a band, but a family too."

They treated the trip to Senegal much like they had treated the recording of their album—family-style, living communally for five days in Scott Solter's Monroe, N.C., Baucom Road studio.

"It felt like we were in his home almost," recalls Ridenour. "We slept there, we ate there, and recorded."

A series of guests during the sessions affirmed the familial aspect. Diali's wife, vocalist Hilary Stewart Cissokho, joined saxophonist Jim Henderson, father of bassist Jonathan. McCall says those collaborators helped such a new band stretch their ideas that much more ably: "Of course, there were some stressful times, but it was a healthy stress, figuring out how we're going to do this or that, or what sounds best."

To approximate the broad sound of the album live, they've invited a full horn section and a cadre of local percussionists to sit in, including Beverly Botsford, Atiba Rorie and Robert Cantrell. Expect some surprises as well; at The Pinhook in February, Cissokho played kora and defied bodily harm while throwing himself repeatedly onto a pile of broken glass. He says it's a form of showmanship he developed as a kid in Senegal.

"In my mind, I'm just thinking like, let me try to do something to make people crazy, to make people think, 'Oh! Diali's crazy,'" Cissokho says.

On Saturday, Kairaba will play a short set first, followed by Midtown Dickens, who are also celebrating their CD release. Kairaba will close with a long set and that expanded lineup. Jonathan Henderson plays in both bands and says he sees the logic in the unusual pairing.

"Both bands are kind of reimaginations of folk music. Midtown is steeped in old-time and Southern folk music traditions, but Home is a pretty adventuresome step in a modern and experimental direction," he says. "That's really similar to the way Kairaba tries to respect and honor the griot tradition that these songs that we play come from, but it's certainly not traditional music that we're playing anymore."

Charismatic and headstrong, Resonance makes a fitting signpost on Kairaba's road through a meteoric adolescence. So long as this brave vibration hangs in the air over Carrboro, music fans of all stripes should continue to resonate.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Brave vibration."

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