The Unlikely Union of Joe Driscoll and Sekou Kouyate // Published in Seven Days // January 28, 2015
If you're the kind of music lover who routinely stalks high-profile national acts at Higher Ground, or even if you favor smaller singer-songwriter spotlights at Radio Bean, you might think the musical fabric of the Green Mountain State is one cut from purely American cloth. Yet tucked away in Charlotte you'll find Cumbancha, a record label, publisher and booking agency focused almost entirely on world music.
Founded by ethnomusicologist and cultural historian Jacob Edgar, Cumbancha's mission is to expose international artists to American audiences. To do so, Edgar looks for artists who, he says, "have a cultural connection but a global appeal; who have a certain heritage, but a sound and vibe that is appealing across borders and generations."
Two of the latest Cumbancha finds fitting that profile are Joe Driscoll, 36, and Sekou Kouyate, 30. As musicians from utterly different upbringings, they make an unlikely pair, but their shared musical palette makes them a dynamic and complementary duo.
Kouyate was raised in a musical family in Conakry, Guinea, where he was trained in kora, a 21-stringed traditional African instrument similar to a harp. Kouyate also tours with the band Ba Cissoko, a quintet composed of his cousins and brothers.
Kouyate brings the ancient kora into modern times by running it through a distortion device and creating a sound comparable to that of an electric guitar. "African music has continued to evolve," Edgar says, "and Sekou is the perfect example of that."
Driscoll approached African musical forms out of growing interest, not family ties. Growing up in Syracuse, N.Y., he developed an appreciation for American hip-hop and rap and began performing and recording. Prior to teaming up with Kouyate, Driscoll operated as a one-man band, using live looping and beat boxing while also playing guitar, harmonica, tambourine and various percussion instruments.
Kouyate and Driscoll met in the summer of 2010 at the Nuits Métis (Mixed Night) music festival in Miramas, France. At the festival, individual musicians are paired together, often not knowing one another beforehand, and given a week to produce a concert. Kouyate and Driscoll were matched but did not share a common language; Driscoll speaks only English, while Kouyate speaks French and his native Susu.
Instead, they let the music speak for them. Their combined talents produced a mélange of hip-hop, funk, traditional African beats and reggae that startled them both.
"It's like putting baking soda and vinegar together. Our styles were totally different but complementary," Driscoll explains by phone.
Driscoll knew that Kouyate was a rare talent and proposed continuing the partnership beyond the festival.
"I met Sekou, and I said, 'Hey, man, let's work on this for a while.' It was kind of one of those 'follow the river' things, and I went with it," Driscoll remembers. "Sometimes life just hands you something."
The impromptu collaboration and subsequent follow-up work eventually culminated in a stateside-recorded album, Faya, released in February 2014. The record caught Edgar's ear, and he reached out to Driscoll and Kouyate to gauge their interest in becoming part of the Cumbancha Discovery series. That's a sub-label Edgar uses to introduce cutting-edge new artists or, as he puts it, "people who are not broadly known but I think are special talents."
Driscoll and Kouyate fit the bill, and soon the pair was promoting Faya through Cumbancha. After the album's release, the musicians toured throughout 2014, racking up 200 shows in Europe in addition to gigs in New York, Chicago and Vermont.
Addressing themes of poverty, cultural differences, and the literal and figurative borders between people, Faya presents a powerful social statement. It's also a thoroughly listenable and catchy album. The opening track, "Tanama," is a lightning-fast number that showcases Kouyate's kora talent, while the title track highlights Driscoll's rap abilities against a backdrop of rough guitar and Kouyate's harmonies.
"Birnakely" blends reggae and hip-hop with moments of blazing kora. As Edgar describes it, the album "reflects elements of both of their styles, but brings them together in a compelling and accessible way."
"This is hip-hop that my grandmother can listen to," he says.
Considering the language barrier, crafting songs for Faya was a challenge. Driscoll and Kouyate wrote their own songs, and then used friends who spoke the other's language to translate.
"We wrote them and then found out what the other was saying afterwards," Driscoll recalls.
While this backward method could have produced contradictory ideas, their separate attempts contained surprising similarities. Driscoll cites a song he wrote called "Lady." Kouyate had picked up a few English words, including "lady." As a touring musician, he understood the trials and tribulations of maintaining a relationship on the road, which was the focus of Driscoll's song. The two went back and forth in separate versions, contributing lyrics in their respective languages, to eventually create the bilingual album track.
Next month, Driscoll and Kouyate return to Vermont to record a new album on the Cumbancha sub-label. Now that the two have worked together for a few years, can fans expect to hear Driscoll rapping in French and Kouyate serenading in English? Not exactly. While Driscoll is slowly learning French, he says they mostly still communicate through, "caveman talk and sign language."
Perhaps this is as it should be. The musicians' combination is exceptional and electric not because of what they have in common but because of their unique contributions and experiences. Different upbringings, languages and instrumental skills are the tools that define their sound and their partnership. As Edgar says, the duo represents "part of our cosmopolitan, globalized world."
Joe Driscoll and Sekou Kouyate were scheduled to perform at ArtsRiot in Burlington this Friday, January 30. But just prior to press time, the show was canceled. Cumbancha founder Jacob Edgar deeply regrets the cancelation and plans to reschedule the performance. Faya is available at joeandsekou.com and on iTunes.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Mutual Appreciation"