Saint-Louis, Senegal, a mix of Sudanese savannahs and water, a crossroads of cultures, a melting pot of artistic legacies, whose population, from the intrepid fisherman to the elegant signare, bears witness to a strong identity. An ideal place with quasi-unreal landscapes, between river and Atlantic Ocean, to anchor a dreamlike adventure. It began in 2009 at a jazz festival in this city where a plethora of bands dedicated to the genre had long flourished. This is where the post-Coltranian drummer and pianist Simon Goubert first met Ablaye Cissoko, a kora player born into a family of djélis (griots) from Upper Casamance. Their interaction gave rise to two albums. The first one, African Jazz Roots (2012, featuring Jean-Jacques Avenel on the double bass, Ousmane Bâ on the Peul flute and percussionist Babou Ngom) was a subtle cocktail of rhythms borrowed from jazz and others closer to the land of the sabars. The second, Au loin (2017, with the pianist Sophia Domancich and double-bass player Jean-Philippe Viret), gave improvisation a larger role and took into account the technique specific to making and playing the harp-lute.
The idea behind this third album is to push the goalposts even further towards the convergence of several idioms, this interweaving of rhythmic play, of contradictory modal sources. A repertoire nurtured by impressions and evocations, like an introspective gaze at this tiny corner of humanity that could be described as suspended in sea air. So listeners will paddle a pirogue from Seetu (Reflets), with its alternating tones of the piano and the kora, to La Langue de Barbarie, a langid, intoxicating melody conducive to indolence and contemplation. They will muse to Réflexions du jour, a distant echo of Duke Ellington (at the first Festival des Arts Nègres de Dakar in 1966) who one can imagine strolling in the fragrant air of an early-morning market. They’ll be disconcerted by Teunguène, an animistic percussion-calabash duet, like a ritual evocation dedicated to the guardian spirits of the Lebu people peculiar to this isle. They’ll share the experience of Le jour des régates, a bewildering, brilliant track filled with the furor of the various districts encouraging their teams. They’ll lose their way in the maze of Manssani Cissé, a bold re-reading of a solemn ode to the Mandinka chanson de geste. After D’une évidence à l’autre, a mischievous reminiscence of an Indian raga, they’ll wander about to the intense sound of Goxumbaac, echoing a popular neigbourhood, then sail away with Sundjata, a tribute to the founder of the Malian Empire in the 13th century. Like cormorants flying over shimmering waters in the evening, Café Touba concludes this repertoire that one can almost sense is perfumed with bewitching thioraye, accompanied by a thiéboudiène – the national fish and rice dish – and an ice-cold Flag beer. “Saint-Louis is an endless poem,” somebody once wrote. On this album, to say the least, our high-flying quintet, with a fascinating array of sonorous colours and a great deal of delicatesse, has paid a deeply sincere, even enchanting homage to this magical, mysterious place.