Best described as an acoustic folk band, Alba Griot Ensemble is made up of two Scottish guitarists, Mark Mulholland and Craig Ward, Belgian double bassist Hannes d’Hoine and Malian ngoni player and percussionist Yacouba Sissoko. Rooted in tradition, Alba Griot Ensemble’s unique approach to cross-cultural collaboration weaves together diverse musical strands to create something new, challenging and startingly beautiful. Recorded by the award-winning producer Dave Odlum, the album combines intricate, intermingled strings, complex melodies and rhythms, and strong vocal harmonies and features the extraordinary drumming of afrobeat legend Tony Allen as well as kora maestro Toumani Diabate.
The adventure began when guitarist and globetrotter Mark Mulholland moved to Mali in 2014. One of the first musicians that he bumped into was band member to be Yacouba, a polyvalent percussionist and master of the ngoni, the traditional lute of the Bambara people. They were soon gigging around the city and touring in the Malian provinces. The obvious next step was to make an album and consummate the unlikely union between Mark’s signature blend of rock, blues, jazz, psychedelic and Celtic folk with Yacouba’s Afro-Manding styles. Fellow guitarist and busking/drinking buddy Craig Ward added his acoustic flair to the line-up along with the classically trained double bassist Hannes d’Hoine, and the ensemble was born.
For all the musicians, it was important to record live together, and for the project to involve ‘home and away’ legs for the musicians based in Europe and in Africa. After the initial recording session at Craig Ward’s studio in a rain-soaked Scotland, and a debut gig at the local village hall, Mark & Yacouba took the tapes to Paris where the legendary Nigerian drummer Tony Allen added his inimitably funky shuffle to the mixes. A few weeks later, back in Mali, the newly-dubbed Alba Griot Ensemble played at the Festival Acoustic Bamako, sharing a stage with Damon Albarn, Tony Allen and Kora maestro Toumani Diabate, whose wizardry can be heard on the spellbindingly beautiful album title track ‘The Darkness Between The Leaves’.
The collaboration widened the horizons of all involved, and as Mark explains the musical meeting is less unusual when you look below the surface of the tradition, “On some levels, [Mali and Scotland] couldn’t be more different – a mountainous rainy country in northern Europe with long dark winters, and a hot dry dusty place on the southern end of the Sahara Desert. There are also some similarities. Both countries have long histories of which their people are proud, going back to ancient kingdoms, and musical and storytelling traditions that have been passed down through generations, but are alive today.” Alba Griot Ensemble shows The Darkness Between The Leaves to be a place where these different strands can be woven together to create something unique, challenging and startlingly beautiful.