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Mamajowali at the Unitarian

Mamajowali — string player and percussionist Joe Craven, kamale ngoni player Mamadour Sidibe and fingerstyle guitarist Walter Strauss — layers Malian roots music with American folk music.

"The word fusion is so overused," Craven says. "But anytime you get a group of people from different places together to play music, you're going to get a fusion of sensibilities."

Mamajowali will play at 7 p.m. Saturday, April 5, at the Unitarian Fellowship, 84 Fourth St., Ashland. Tickets cost $20 in advance and can be purchased online at www.brownpapertickets.com or at Fretwell Music, 1652 Ashland St. Tickets will cost $25 at the door.

"It's kind of groove oriented, and we make a lot of racket for three guys," Craven says. "There's certainly a dance element to it. It would be great to see people dancing. I love the idea of people dancing in a church. We don't play gospel in any traditional sense of the word, but we could creatively expand on it. Playing music is a spiritual experience for me, and playing for other people goes from spiritual to religious."

Craven points to John Coltrane as an example of the spiritual connection to music. The Saint John African Orthodox Church was founded after Franzo and Marina King heard the jazz artist perform in 1965 in San Francisco.

"Music is as close to a religion as I have, but don't confuse that with spirituality," Craven says. Spirituality is a personal experience ... a way to live with the self."

Mamajowali members call their mix of Americana and Malian music "Afromericana."

"It's so hard to label music these days," Craven says. "Technology has made our world smaller. We're a product of our listening environment. This will be something a little different for folks. The three of us are all into different projects, and this combination is fun for us."

The most unusual member of the trio is Sidibe, who was born in southern Mali. The oldest folk instrument on that part of the globe is the ngoni, a bridge harp built from wood or a hollowed gourd using 21 strings. It was traditionally played by griots, a hunter and storyteller caste.

"It was a patriarchal instrument," Craven says. "The griots would play traditional songs before tribal hunts."

Sidibe helped revolutionize the ngoni from that tradition to a more contemporary identification, Craven says. He made modifications to the instrument, giving it 12 strings, and made it accessible to anyone who wanted to play it.

"It's an amazing instrument," he says. "It looks so primitive but resonates with beautiful sounds. The speed and dexterity of the melodies is enchanting."

Craven plays fiddle, mandolin and percussion for the Mamajowali project, though he is well-known for his freestyle folk music and his eclectic collection of stringed instruments made from found objects, such as his "canjoe," his "urinenator" — a mandolin made from a hospital bedpan — and his violin made from a Spam can called a "Spamavarius." His percussion kit includes a bongo, kick board, shakers, cowbells and other hand toys, as he calls them, collectively, along with vocal percussion.

As a freelance musician, Craven has played alternative bluegrass and acoustic jazz with David Grisman and his famous quintet, and Daryl Anger's Psychograss with Mike Marshall, Tony Trischka, Todd Phillips and David Grier, to name just two groups.

Fingerstyle guitarist Strauss falls into the enigmatic category of singer and songwriter, Craven says.

"Walter plays the unholy guitar," he says. "It's quite awesome. It's a custom six-string guitar with no sound hole. Walter's trip is that he's enchanted with the music of the Mali culture, the ngoni and the kora, or African harp, and he's learned to interpret this music on his guitar. He's developed a new way to play.

"He's kind of his own man, but when he collaborates, he does it with a lot of musicians from Mali. He's deep into it."

Mamajowali is presented by Rogue World Ensemble, an Ashland-based nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting traditional world folk music.

Left to right: Joe Craven, Mamadou Sidibe and Walter Strauss are Mamajowali - Photo courtesy of RWE Communicat