For Paul Oliver and other redoubtable British blues scholars, the subject of "African retentions in the blues" once provided a significant area of research. To what extent, they tried to understand, had the works of black American blues musicians kept elements from before the era of slavery, and how did they relate to African music of the past and the present? Now, it seems, the formulation may have to be reversed, and we could end up looking for blues retentions in African music instead.
The Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure, who swapped his traditional one-string "monochord" for a western-style guitar while visiting Bulgaria for a folk festival in 1968, is often assumed to owe a debt to John Lee Hooker - something he fervently denies. His 1997 album with Ry Cooder for World Circuit records, Talking Timbuktu, was recorded in California and included several songs that sounded as if they derived from Mississippi, rather than Mali. Now the famous postmodern bluesman Taj Mahal (who at the beginning of his career, in the mid-sixties, played with Cooder in the Rising Sons) has made his own African blues connection. The album Kulanjan, by Taj Mahal and Toumani Diabate, is a rousing set of eclectic grooves, calling on ragtime, barrelhouse blues and even rock'n'roll, with Mahal's guitar and piano joined by Diabate's kora and the ngoni lute, balafon, kamalengoni (or hunter's harp) and wailing vocals of Diabate's six-piece Malian band.
On Kulanjan constantly repeated patterns serve up a trance-music version of the 12-bar blues, as Mahal (who was born Henry St Claire Fredericks in Harlem, New York City, in 1940) picks out licks and spits out guttural vocals in his time-honoured style. Recorded in Athens, Georgia, and produced by Lucy Duran, Kulanjan is formidably strange and beautiful. And, unusually for a cross-cultural effort, it does not appear to short-change either of the traditions involved.
On the opening, "Queen Bee", a ragtime riff that sounds just like one of those Stefan Grossman tablature exercises that generations of finger-picking guitarists once learnt to copy by rote, the normally metrically exact measures are slowed down and forced to submit to a kind of uncertainty principle by Diabate's kora improvisations. Ramatou Diakite sings sweetly, before Mahal's voice stutters into action with the generic blues verse of "Sweeter than a honey bee", followed by a refrain of "Rock me in my soul". Then Diabate's solo dissolves the faltering pulse, taking the governing western-derived blues form back to Bamako. If the rest of the album never quite rises to these dizzying heights again, the price of admission is well worth it just for this, although there are a number of almost equally inspired moments.
"What I've learnt about the blues is the melancholy that we have in common, that I feel inside when I play my music," Diabate says. For Taj Mahal, who first visited West Africa in 1979, his discovery of Mali was partly a search for the spirits of his ancestors and in particular a search for a song called "Kulanjan" that he had heard on a record by Toumani Diabate's father, Sidike Diabate. " 'Kulanjan' was the way I called this music, the sound of Malian music," he says. "I didn't know much about it, but I knew if I worked on that Kulanjan sound, I'd find what I was looking for." Happily for us, it seems that he really did. And for students of "blues retentions in African music" - yep, that is a plectrum.
"Kulanjan" is available on Hannibal Records, distributed by Rykodisc