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African Jazz

West Africa: Frikyiwa's Mix of Ancient and Modern

By Published: April 10, 2004

However, it's impossible to mistake the lead on Siran. Filifin grew up in southwest Mali, close to the border with Guinea, schooled from an early age in the "hunter's" tradition on the formal dozo n'goni and more casual kamele n'goni. Filifin's voice is bright and forward; his instrument is active and detailed (indeed a lead instrument). The lyrics, of course, are lost to most Western ears, but the overall impression is passionate. Their cadence—especially in a simulated call-and-response phrasing—feels familiar if you're attuned to early blues and don't mind a sharper delivery or the absence of stereotyped cliches. His carignan, a cylindrical metal percussion instrument, tends to lie in the background and provide subtle counterpoint.

N'Gou Bagayoko is more or less a sideman on this record, driving straight ahead, lying low or sitting out where the situation demands. It's interesting to consider how the recording would have turned out if Filifin had gone it alone. Such a stark performance would surely have had more hard-hitting impact, but it would have also been far less accessible, detailed, and moving overall. Such is the way of a wise accompanist.

Art highlights: Lots of colorful shots of Filifin's brightly-decorated Mobylette motorbike. Multimedia: Filifin the biker (didn't work on my computer).

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N'Gou Bagayoko
FKW007 (2002)

Origin: Mali
Summary: Pulsating guitar with or without bright female vocals

Bougouni, Mali served as the leaping-off point for four Frikyiwa releases, including both Filifin's Siran (described above) and N'Gou Bagayoko's Kulu (which means "ancestors" by my best guess). On Kulu the fifty-something guitarist drifts from background to foreground and back, though he tends toward a middle ground when vocalists are part of the mix.

Half of these tracks include female vocals, including most notably Bagayoko's wife and daughter on two tracks each. The elder Nahawa Doumbia's delivery has the signature features of Wassoulou region of Southern Mali, most widely popularized by contemporary vocalist Oumou Sangaré: piercing delivery, sustained phrasing, and a kind of insistence that's hard to refuse. They're not the soft, lush female vocals most familiar to Western audiences, instead full-bore outpourings of soul and emotion.

Vocalist Mai Sanogo (one track) sounds entirely tame in comparison, but Bagayoko's daughter has a sweet softness that still commands attention. The differences between the singers makes each new appearance a fresh experience. So do the rather understated studio tweaks, including vocal harmonies and effects.

Bagayoko is a veteran musician (as is his wife) and that experience is reflected in knowledge of where to step forward and where to hold back. The pieces without vocals are the most revealing, of course. Three come as entirely solo efforts, including the opening two tracks, which offer a warm welcome through pentatonic riffing and cycling. He's no virtuoso, but that's just plain not relevant.

Proponents of the theory that American blues has roots in Mali will find compelling evidence here. This is without question the finest of the Frikyiwa releases reviewed in this article.

Art highlights: Beautiful flowing robes on Bagayoko and the singers; odd camouflage on Filifin. Multimedia: an interactive three-dimensional matrix of 27 short music/dance videos. Top-notch design by Manuel Tau and Patrick Doan.

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Louis 2000
Nuits Sur Écoute: Bignona
FKW010 (2003)

Origin: Senegal
Summary: Electronic ("ambient") treatments of night sounds and music

Bignona is the second installment of Frikyiwa's Nuits sur Écoute series, and it differs from the first ( Bougouni ) in several respects, but it retains the same village-centric night sounds (eg. animals, kids, clapping and dancing). Those elements are what keep this otherwise thoroughly modern production grounded.

Louis 2000 is a thirty-something Frenchman with an early interest in rock that subsequently expanded to include studio production and acoustic composition. Over the course of ten days of recording in the Diolla ethnic region of Casamance (Southern Senegal), he absorbed sounds from morning to night, man-made and natural alike. The music on Bignona often does not reflect the acoustic matching of Bougouni : instead, it's added after the fact in order to enhance certain textural or percussive aspects of the sound sources proper.

I have the feeling from listening to this record that I don't have the capacity to stretch out enough to properly enjoy it. This is an extended suite, full of voices, echoes and unusual juxtapositions, which flows naturally but very gradually from one place to the next. It works fine as background music (certainly nothing terribly abrupt or grabbing), but when you really tune into what's going on, it takes a lot of attention to fully absorb the music. There's just a whole lot going on over the full course of the record.

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