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Balla et ses Balladins / Issa Bagayogo / Rail Band: electric-roots at their best, and worst

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Two albums from Mali—the second release in a sparkling Rail Band archive collection, Rail Band 2: Mansa, and Issa Bagayogo's Mali Koura—recorded over thirty years apart, show how electric-roots music should and shouldn't be made.



A third album, from neighbouring Guinea—Balla et ses Balladins: The Syliphone Years—documents one of the most creative and accomplished, but latterly unremembered bands to emerge during the country's 1960s/1970s "authenticite" era.



A fourth disc—Living Is Hard: West African Music in Britain 1927-1929—excavates some of the first recordings made by African musicians in Europe.



An excellent month for collectors; a disappointing one at 2008's supposed cutting edge.



Rail Band

Rail Band 2: Mansa

Sterns Africa

2008



During the colonial era, African bands aiming to make a living in urban centers were obliged to build their repertoires around cover versions of overseas recordings—in the late 19th and early 20th centuries foxtrots, polkas and waltzes, in the 1940s and 1950s everything from light opera through show tunes and European chart hits. The best paid work opportunities were in hotels and nightclubs frequented by colonial administrators, who by and large wanted to hear echoes of home rather than reminders of their minority existences in distant countries.



All this changed with independence in the 1960s. In West Africa at the start of the decade, the process was kick-started by President Sekou Toure's "authenticite" campaign in Guinea, which funded the formation of dozens of national and regional bands building their repertoires around local heritage musics. The drive for authenticity did not, however, extend to expunging Western instruments from band lineups. Traditional drums, tuned percussion (like the balafon) and stringed instruments (like the kora) were increasingly featured—but saxophones and trumpets continued to be widely used and electric guitars, albeit played in heavily Africanized styles, actually became the cornerstones of many bands.



This adventurous and open-minded roots movement became known as "modern folklore," and neighbouring Mali followed close behind Guinea's initiative. But in Mali, for several years, the revolutionary banner was carried by just one band, the Rail Band—to give it its full title, the Super Rail Band du Buffet Hotel de la Gare de Bamako—and the band's "Mandingo classicism" version of modern folklore.



Rail Band 2: Mansa is the second of three double-CDs archiving the Rail Band's recordings from its formation in 1970 until 1983 (after which its existence became sporadic). Like its predecessor, Rail Band 1: Soundiata (Sterns Africa, 2007), and presumably, in due course, its successor, the set majors on the period 1972-76, but includes earlier and later material. Each volume in the series thus independently offers a rounded history of the band and—crucially—its distinguished bloodline of vocalists, which included Salif Keita (1970-72) and Mory Kante (1972-76), both of whom would later emerge as stars of the world music movment, and Magan Ganessy (1975-83).



The centerpiece of Rail Band 1: Soundiata was Kante's "Soundiata L'Exil" from 1975—a sprawling 27 minute epic, originally titled "L'Exil De Soundjata, Le Fondateur De L'Empire Mandingue," which celebrated the founding of the Mandingo empire in the 13th century. On Rail Band 2: Mansa, it's once again the longest track, "Mansa," another Kante-led recording from 1975, which is the centerpiece. The track is in two parts. The first and longest section features Kante's vocals over a reiterated, mesmeric, descending balafon and percussion riff; the second, faster section includes brilliantly Africanized trumpet and guitar solos from, respectively, Sourakata Cisse and Djelmady Tounkara, who resolve the tension created earlier in an explosion of exuberant improvisation.



The two discs are packed with other wonderful examples of Mandingo classicism, and in Kante's "Dugu Kamaleba" from 1977 a rare slice of Malian Afrobeat. Kante had visited Nigeria earlier that year and had heard at first hand Fela Kuti & Afrika 70's seminal blend of Yoruba rhythms and jazz/soul-inflected horn arrangements. "Dugu Kamaleba" has all the defining characteristics of Afrobeat—a loping rhythm, an insistent guitar riff, raucous tenor saxophone, Kuti-esque electric keyboard comping, and a message lyric ("Good looks and sweet mouth, here comes the city's Casanova...")—and is a delight.



Magical stuff. Roll on 2009 and the concluding volume in the series.



Issa Bagayogo

Mali Koura

Six Degrees

2008



Thirty years after the Rail Band's adventures, Malian singer and n'goni player Issa Bagayogo's fourth electric-roots collaboration with the French producer Yves Wernert is a disappointing affair. Nicknamed "Techno-Issa" in Bamako, Bagayogo since 1998 has worked with Wernhert to develop what he calls Afrotechno. The duo's first three albums were enjoyable enough, but with Mali Koura Bagayogo and Wernhert have reached a reductio ad absurdum in which Malian content is almost wholly swamped by overdubbed, and mostly nondescript, Western horn and keyboard arrangements.



Having laid down the basic tracks in Bamako, Bagayogo gave the tapes to Wernhert, who returned to France and with a group of dance and chill-out session musicians re-arranged and re-configured each track. In the early rock and roll years, such attempts to make records palatable to mainstream audiences were known as "sweetening" (with string sections taking the place of today's samples and synthesizers). Although Bagayogo's inclusive, outward-looking posture is to be applauded—for no music can survive as a museum piece—the process, on the evidence here, has taken a step too far. Crucially, too many of Wernhert and fellow keyboard player/guitarist Gael Le Billan's contributions sound like generic noodling.



Other like-minded albums on the Six Degrees label have been more successful. The Algerian-born DJ and producer Cheb i Sabbah's digitally manipulated celebration of Indian devotional music, Devotion (Six Degrees, 2008), is imaginative and arresting.



Mali Koura, by contrast, isn't a real cultural blend, more Mali-lite.



Balla et ses Balladins

Balla et ses Balladins: The Syliphone Years

Sterns Africa

2008



It's not usual for a re-issue series to improve as it progresses, but so it is with Sterns Africa's magnificent 1960s/1970s trawl through the archives of Guinea's Syliphone label. This fourth double-CD features a band which, like several others, has been overshadowed in popular memory by the all-conquering and more prolific Bembeya Jazz—but which produced a steady flow of the purest 24-carat musical gold.



Like Bembaya, Balla et ses Balladins were at the forefront of President Sekou Toure's 1960s/70s "authenticite" campaign. As part of the campaign, Sekou's government funded dozens of bands which—retaining Western instruments like saxophones, trumpets and electric guitars, augmented with traditional Malian instruments—rejected making cover versions of overseas hits, as had previously been the norm, in favour of new, traditional or traditionally-inspired repertoires. Some of the bands were designated "regional," others, like Bembeya and the Balladins, were "national."



All the bands recorded for the state-run Syliphone and many were featured on the series' opening set, Authenticite: The Syliphone Years (Sterns Africa, 2007). The second and third volumes in the series covered Bembaya Jazz and Keletigui et ses Tambourinis.



Trumpeter Balla Onivogui was a seminal figure in the authenticite program. In January, 1959, shortly after independence, he was one of a group of especially talented musicians tasked by Sekou with forming and training regional authenticite bands. In 1960 he flew to Italy to buy instruments for no fewer than 60 lineups. Between times, Balla led his own band (first known as the Orchestre du Jardin de Guinee) in what would become a 20-year residency at one of Conakry's leading dance venues, the Jardin de Guinee.



Musicianship was generally high throughout authenticite bands—Sekou's Guinea, like Hugo Chavez's Venezuela in 2008, took pains to nurture talented young musicians—but the quality of the players in the Balladins was exceptional. Key amongst them were lead guitarist Sekou "Le Docteur" Diabate, one of the first to develop a truly African style on the electric instrument (inspired in part by Guinea's kora music), and rhythm guitarist Kemo Kouyate, a griot by birth, whose inventive riffs and vamps docked gloriously with Sekou's cascading single-note runs.



Balla et ses Balladins: The Syliphone Years covers the complete recording history of the band, from their first album, Orchestra du Jardin de Guinee (Syliphone, 1968) to their last, the appropriately titled Objectif Perfection (Syliphone, 1980). The two discs unfold chronologically and all the group's key recordings are featured, including "Sara '70" from Guinee An XI (Syliphone, 1970), a landmark in the realisation of authenticite.



Alongside his work with the Balladins, Sekou "Le Docteur" Diabate—with his guitar playing brothers Abdoulaye, Sekou and Papa—was a member of the acoustic group African Virtoses. He can be heard, playing lead and bass, on African Virtuoses: The Classic Guinean Guitar Group, another jewel in Sterns' Guinean reissue program.



Various Artists

Living Is Hard: West African Music in Britain 1927-1929

Honest Jon's

2008



With its London Is The Place For Me series of albums, Honest Jon's have provided carefully curated and vivid documentation of Caribbean and African music recorded in London in the 1950s and 1960s. On Living Is Hard: West African Music in Britain 1927-1929 the label turns the clock back even further, unearthing some of the very first recordings made by West African musicians in Britain.



The late 1920s saw determined attempts by European labels to expand their markets into black Africa. As well as sending recording engineers out to Africa, EMI—in whose vaults the tracks here were found—also recorded African musicians passing through or living in Britain. The sessions were intended for export only, for "native" markets, and feature a cast list of now forgotten vocalists performing traditional work and ritual songs over skeletal instrumental accompaniment (a shaker, a gong or a hand drum). The sound quality is good, better than much of the music recorded in the 1920s in West Africa itself.



Most of the singers, like Ben Simmons—whose three, intensely shamanistic performances sound like those of a real fetish priest—perform their material precisely as they would back home during communal gatherings. Occasionally—as on the West African Instrumental Quintet's "Adersu No.2," the Kumasi Trio's "Asin Asin Pt.2" and George William Aingo's "Akuko Nu Bonto"—guitars and the first stirrings of highlife can be heard.



Living Is Hard: West African Music in Britain 1927-1929 will be of most interest to hardcore African music historians, who'll find it a valuable and absorbing resource.

Tracks and Personnel

Rail Band 2: Mansa

Tracks: CD1: Rail Band; Mansa; Finza; Demba; Kankoun; Konowale; Balakononifing; Dugu Kamaleba; Mamobo. CD2: Koro Koni; Kaira; Tie Diuguya; Dioula; Tiramakan; Lanseny; Gnagna; Mamadou Boutiqui; Gansana.

Personnel: various lineups including: Salif Keita: vocals; Mory Kante: vocals, balafon; Magan Ganessy: vocals; Djelimady Sissoko: vocals; Sekou Kante: vocals; Lanfia Diabate: vocals; Sekou Kouyate: vocals; Damory Kouyate: vocals; Tidiani Kone: trumpet, tenor and alto saxophone; Souraka Cisse: trumpet; Moussa Kone: trumpet; Kabine Keita: saxophones; Ledi Youla: saxophones; Marius: timbales; Abdouramane Koumare: percussion; Pacheco: drums; Korobala: bongos; Moussa Traore: percussion; Charie: percussion; Nabr Baba: solo guitar; Djelmady Tounkara: solo guitar; Ousman Sogodogo: guitar; Mamoutou Diakitie: guitar; Djelimoussa Kouyate: guitar; Alfred Coulibaly: keyboards; Issa Tounkara: bass; Cheik Traore: bass.

Mali Koura

Tracks: Sebera; Filaw; Poye; Tcheni Tchemakan; Dibi; Dunu Kan; N'tana; Ahe Sira Bila; Namadjidja; Fimani; M'ba Fodi.

Personnel: Issa Bagayogo: kamele n'goni, lead vocals; Pamela Mapaha: backing vocals; Yves Wernert: backing vocals, bass, synthesizer; Gael Le Billan: backing vocals, acoustic guitar, bass, acoustic drum, kayambre, accordion, Rhodes electric piano, Hammond B4 organ; Mama Sissoko: electric guitar, n'goni; LePask: electric guitar; Adam Diarra: djembe; Alou Traore: calabash; Madou Diallo: flute; Zoumana Tereta: sokou violin; Sheriff Soumano: kora.

Balla et ses Balladins: The Syliphone Years

Tracks: CD1: N'na Soba; Bandian; Toure; Belebele; J.R.D.A.; Yo Te Contres Maria; Bedianamo; Soumbouyaya; Tara; Limania; Sara '70; Moi Ca Ma Fout; Sakhodougou; Kaira; Bi Diamana Moo. CD2: Kogno Koura; Manta Lokoka; Yahadi Gere; Keba Mirima; Sankaran Ka; Ka Noutea; Ancien Combatant; Nyo; Wilikabo; Fadakudu; Lumumba; Bambo; Paulette.

Personnel: various lineups including: Ben Onivogui: trumpet, leader; Pivi Moriba: trombone, alto saxophone; Gueye Doudou: saxophones; Souleymane Syla: soprano saxophone, clarinet; Fode Ndiaye: tenor saxophone, flute; Manfila Kante: vocals; Emile Soumah: vocals; Sekou "Le Docteur" Diabate: lead guitar; Ibrahima Kouyate: lead guitar; Sankumba Diawara: rhythm guitar; Kemo Kouyate: rhythm guitar; Bamba Kourouma: bass guitar; Famoro Kouyate: bass guitar; Amadou Thiam: congas, percussion; Daouda Conde: drums; Abdou Camara: drums.

Living Is Hard: West African Music in Britain 1927-1929

Tracks: Garse Yer Fido; Nitsi Koko; Untitled; Anadwofa; Ma Kun; Kuntum; Ligligi; Adersu No.2; Abowe; Buje; Obu Kofi; Rue Bai Rue Bai; Bukay; Asin Asin Pt.2; Sakyi; Jon Jo Ko; Edna Buchaiku; Akuko Nu Bonto; Ewuri Beka; Mi Augr Bi; Mukorin Mantun; Wasiu Dowu; Alahira.

Personnel: O. Johnson; Isaac Jackson; Ben Simmons; Harry E. Quashie; Douglas Papafio; Prince Zulamka; The West African Instrumental Quintet; The Ga Quartet; Domingo Justus; James Tucker; John Mugat; Kumasi Trio; Douglas Papafio; James Thomas; Nicholas De Heer; George Williams Aingo; James Brown.


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