Yacouba Sissoko is one of the most sought-after kora musicians in the world. He plays a 21-stringed harp made of wood, leather and calabash — as a boy in Mali he learned from his grandfather, and today, as a master musician, he lives in New York City and tours internationally, performing West African music, jazz, Latin and rhythm and blues with icons like Regina Carter, Baaba Maal and Paul Simon, and bluegrass with banjo player Jayme Stone — and he has performed here in the mountains, in the fields and courtyards of an old milltown.
Sissoko has come to the Berkshires for FreshGrass, Mass MoCA’s annual contemporary bluegrass and roots festival. This year Tunisian vocalist Emel Mathlouthi lifts her voice over low strings and flute, and Leyla McCalla sings Haitian Creole and French; the festival has an international reach.
The kora is traditionally a solo instrument, Sissoko says. In his hands it can play the voices of many instruments at once, a bass line and melody and high improvisation above it. He has recently released his first solo album, celebrating his harp’s voice and his own clear tenor, but at Mass MoCA in September he will perform in a trio with bass and percussion.
FreshGrass is broadening the scope of bluegrass to connect warmly with its roots, says Olli Chanoff, curator of this year’s festival and managing director of programming with The Office performing arts + film, an independent curator and production company in New York and London.
Traditional music around the world has deep connections to bluegrass, he says. People forced to America from West Africa brought their own music, strings and percussion and winds; the banjo descends from the ngoni, a four-stringed instrument from Mali.
Workers from Ireland brought fiddles and mandolins, button boxes and penny whistles, and in the South, jigs and reels, work songs and call-and-response blended and grew into new American music. Bluegrass emerged in the 1930s, evolving out of folk and gospel, jazz and blues.
So at this year’s festival, when Rhiannon Giddens sings an old tune like Water Boy over low strumming and tambourine with the fervor of field songs and soul, she shares a tradition with Atlan, one of the great Irish bands, celebrating its 35th year.
At FreshGrass in 2018, Chanoff is making sure the lineup is rich in well-known and emerging bluegrass artists — Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, Della Mae, Allison Brown and many more, and folk giants the Indigo Girls to the reunited Mammals with Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, Michael Merenda and and Ruthy Ungar. And he is exploring the roots of the music, even across oceans.
“As we thought about what kind of festival we want it to be,” he says, “roots music has become more and more important.”
‘As we thought about what kind of festival we want it to be, roots music has become more and more important.’ — Olli Chanoff
So he has invited Mathlouthi, who has performed from Tunisia to Paris to New York
Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. She writes her own music and raises her voice with the longing of an oboe and the strength to fill a maze of brick mill courtyards.
She recorded her newest album, Ensen, in seven countries on three continents. In Arabic, the title means human, and she has dedicated the title song, Ensen Dhaif, to “people that have to carry the weight and all the struggles so that a very small percentage can enjoy the power.”
She will come to the festival with a new composition, a score to a silent film, and so will McCalla, who has made an international name for herself with her first album, Vari-Colored Songs, with settings of Langston Hughes’ poems to her own music and Haitian folk songs.
For several years, Mass MoCA has commissioned FreshScores, and in the last two years the festival has also given a commission to a contemporary composer. This year, Giddens will perform a new long work on Friday night, and on Saturday she will play a set with her regular band. Like McCalla and Sissoko, she writes original music and makes traditional ballads her own.
Sissoko often plays traditional songs, songs he learned from his grandmother and grandfather, who raised him, and he creates his own arrangements. Add a downbeat and the energy changes, he says. Under his fingers the rhythm and the tempo shift, the melody lifts, and people dance. He comes from a family of djeli, storytellers.
“All of my music goes with a story,” he says.
He is singing in his own language, so he tells the audience the story of each song before he begins. The music passes along messages of love, encouragement and faith.
“If we do good, if we support each other, then we don’t minimize each other.”
Siya is the name of his new album as well as the name of his regular band.
“It means source,” he says. “That is the definition of who I am. This is what I do. I send a message from the ancestors. If we don’t do this job, no one will do it for us. Be who you are, and no one can change you, no matter where you come from.”