Kronos Quartet Pieces of Africa

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Kronos Quartet Pieces of Africa

  • Mai Nozipo (Mother Nozipo)
  • Kutambarra (Spreading)
  • Saade (I'm happy)
  • Tilliboyo (Sunset)
  • Ekitundu Ekisooka (First movement)
  • Escalay (Waterwheel)
  • Wawshishijay (Our beginning)
  • String Quartet No. 1, 'White Man Sleeps'
  • Mai Nozipo (Mother Nozipo)
  • Kutambarra (Spreading)
  • Saade (I'm happy)
  • Tilliboyo (Sunset)
  • Ekitundu Ekisooka (First movement)
  • Escalay (Waterwheel)
  • Wawshishijay (Our beginning)
  • String Quartet No. 1, 'White Man Sleeps'

This is the kind of issue likely to provoke knee-jerk reactions. If you like the Kronos Quartet and if you enjoy crossover music you will probably love it. If not, you will probably hate it.
For my part the initial thrill of the Kronos and everything they stand for has worn off. Certainly they are fine players, and certainly they have succeeded in drawing a different audience to the quartet medium. But the price has been that their concerts tend to degenerate into cabaret acts, and the music composed for them has been for the most part either jokey or pretentious, occasionally both (maybe the quartet under way from Giya Kancheli will prove an exception).
Not that that necessarily applies to this latest issue. The problem this time is that the four strings give the impression of tourists in a realm which would be far more attractive without them—rather as a grand piano would be in an Indian raga, or a sitar in a symphony orchestra. This should hardly be surprising, given that the essence of most of the pieces is rhythmic repetition and simple single-line melody, whereas the quartet medium thrives on flexible texture and conversational interplay.
For me there are just two successful pieces. One is Kevin Volans's five-part White Man Sleeps composed for the Kronos in 1985, and whose most interesting movements were already included in a previous compilation (2/89). The other is Escalay (''Water-wheel'') by the Sudanese composer, Hamza el Din; here you do not need to know the music's origins, in the sadness of a village lost after the creation of the Aswan High Dam, to appreciate its depth of feeling and inventive resourcefulness.
Is there something fundamentally misguided in the whole enterprise, or is it held back simply by the musical limitations of the other African composers? Maybe a further venture on similar lines will bear richer fruit. But in this case, far from breaking down barriers I fear the results serve only to prove how intractable the barriers are. Should we be worried about that?'

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