Crossborder Traffic: Congo, Guinea and Mali

Chris May By

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Four outstanding albums for the New Year—two from Congo, one each from Guinea and Mali—each coloured to some degree by crossborder, crosscultural traffic, but each remaining deeply and authentically African. Rumba On The River and 20ème Anniversaire track the impact of Cuban rumba on Congolese electric dance music. Electric Griot Land takes traditional Guinean kora music into the electronic age. Abacabok is powerful desert roots music out of northern Mali, mainly acoustic but including two guest guitarists evoking the late Ali Farka Toure.

Various Artists
Congo: Rumba On The River

Even hardcore African music enthusiasts get confused by the idea of Congolese rumba. It's the result of so many transatlantic crossings—in both directions, over hundreds of years—that it's hard to nail its provenance down with precision. But if that stops people checking it out, it's pretty tragic, for the music is one of the wonders of Africa—in particular for its use of electric guitars, a defining example of Western technology recalibrated to express African sensibilities. Virtuoso vocalists, swing-influenced horn sections and potent dance rhythms—not just rumba, but mambo, bolero and cha cha too—also feature in the music, but it's the guitar playing which is Congolese rumba's crowning glory.

All you really need to know about the history of the music is this. Its genesis began four or five hundred years ago, when slaves from what is now Congo took the rumba rhythm with them to the plantations of Cuba. Fast forward to the late 1800s, when Cuban rumba emerged in its finished form, and then again to the 1940s, when Caribbean sailors brought Cuban rumba records to Congo. The music struck a mighty chord back in Leopoldville and Brazzaville, and by the late 1950s a locally recorded, re-Africanised rumba was the most popular music in Central Africa. By the mid 1960s, it was also massively influential throughout West and East Africa, from Senegal to Kenya.

A two-disc compilation, Congo: Rumba On The River, a collection of tracks recorded between 1954 and 1968, mostly in the mid 1960s, is a perfect introduction to the music's first golden age, and features all the major artists of the era—Le Grand Kalle's African Jazz, Franco's Orchestre Tout Puissant OK Jazz (TPOK Jazz), Tabu Ley's African Fiesta, Bantous De La Capitale, Dr Nico, Essous and Sam Mangwana.

Crucially, the two founding geniuses of Congolese electric guitar, Franco and Nico, are centre stage in one band or another practically throughout, supported by a strong cast of second-line players. By the mid 1960s, many rumba bands included three guitars, one the improvising lead, the others playing rapid-fire, fingerpicked, treble-end ostinatos and fulfilling roles somewhere between front-line and rhythm section instruments. The players' interweaving lines grow out of traditional Congolese likembe (thumb piano) dance and trance music: rhythmically complex and powerfully mesmeric.

Though recorded in very basic studio setups, with no overdubs and typically in one take, the sound quality on most tracks is good, for the ingenuity of the musicians extended to the recording process itself. It's easy to visualise the ten, eleven or twelve piece groups clustered round a single mic, garage band style, and giving it their all. Passion and creativity render the finer points of hi-fidelity irrelevant.

This is a number one with a mango album, and anyone wanting to investigate the roots of modern Congolese rumba would do well to start here. But first, check out the next disc, a collection of later, benchmark recordings by Franco and TPOK Jazz. You'll appreciate the early pioneers all the more once you know how far the music went on to travel....

20ème Anniversaire: 6 Juin 1956—6 Juin 1976

Recorded and originally released in 1976, to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the founding of TPOK Jazz, the two-disc set 20ème Anniversaire presents Franco's rumba music in the mature, precisely codified style which would be the blueprint for the remainder of his career.

In 1956, TPOK Jazz was a ten-piece, but by the late 1970s the band had grown to some 25 musicians, singers and dancers. Instrumental credits aren't given on 20ème Anniversaire, but it sounds like there are three guitarists, three percussionists, five horn players and a bass guitarist. There's also a pool of eight featured singers, working together in various harmonising configurations and taking turns on the lead vocals.

Most of the tracks last about ten minutes, and each is typically divided into two parts. The first, lasting two to three minutes, is a tightly arranged, formal statement of the theme, taken at a measured pace and led by choral vocals. The second, the sebene—where the real voodoo happens—is faster and rhythmically wilder. Its focus is split between Franco's extended guitar solos and improvisations by the lead vocalists, the two things often happening simultaneously.

Compared with his main rival, Nico, Franco's playing owes little to jazz or rock (though there are echoes of the blues in his "dirty," percussive textures), or Cuban or Spanish guitar styles. His roots and resonances come almost entirely from traditional likembe music, and other deep jungle retentions. He rarely plays single note solos, preferring primal, finger-picked, chord-based riffs and motifs, often repeated with variations for an entire chorus. He generally uses open tunings, and favours the middle register.

The two supporting guitars weave in and out, picking treble-end ostinatos against which Franco creates powerful rhythmic tension. He particularly enoys setting 3:2 time against 4:4, a relaxed variant of Latin music's urgent 6:8 against 4:4, enabling dancers to keep moving through even the most humid tropical night. And all the while, melodic invention flows out of him like a river. If the late Ali Farka Toure is the most recent example African guitar playing genius, Franco was his godfather.

During his lifetime (1938-89), Franco was known as the Sorcerer of the Guitar. The honorific was well chosen. Like a real sorcerer, he hypnotises the listener, plays tricks with time and space and takes you to another place. Music doesn't get much better than this.

Ba Cissoko
Electric Griot Land

Guinean kora player Ba Cissoko is the youngest in a line of hereditary griots who can trace their history back over a hundred years. He learnt his storytelling and kora playing skills from his uncle, M'Bady Kouyate, who mentored him from childhood.

So far, so familiar. But here's the scoop: as its title suggests, Electric Griot Land isn't an album of traditional griot music—or rather it is, but the instrumentation and arrangements place at least one of its feet in new territory. The core lineup is a quartet, in which Cissoko, on vocals and kora, shares the frontline with his cousin, Sekou Kouyate, on electric kora and balafon. Another cousin, Kourou Kouyate, plays electric bass and Ibrahim Bah Konkoure plays calabash and djembe.

The music packs some heavy dub-informed bass lines, and Sekou Kouyate—who in concert sometimes plays his axe with his teeth or behind his head—brings a flavour of post-Hendrix rock guitar to the proceedings. But one of the beauties of Electric Griot Land is that at no point do the two electric instruments overwhelm Cissoko's voice or acoustic kora, or Konkoure's rattling, metallic djembe drum. Instead, they add freshness and new colours to what is in most respects traditional Manding griot music. Two of the tracks ("Allah Lake" and "Tjedo") are folk songs, and if the liner composer credits weren't to hand, you'd probably think Cissoko's eleven originals were traditional too, for they share the same melodic structures, rhythms and lyric subject matter.

It's this fine balance between tradition and experiment which makes the album so satisfying. For almost thirty years, koras have been used to enrich Western music—from Foday Musa Suso's pioneering work with the Mandingo Griot Society, and later with Bill Laswell and Herbie Hancock, through Mory Kante and Toumani Diabate. Electric Griot Land is the most successful attempt so far to flip the coin—putting Western technology and instrumentation to the service of traditional African acoustic music, without opening a branch of Starbucks in the process.

There are some outstanding guest musicians. Amadou & Mariam's Amadou Bagayoko adds wonderfully spare and spooky electric guitar to "Allah Lake," and the reggae-influenced Ivoirean, Tiken Jah Fakoly, takes deep tenor lead vocals on "Africa" and "On Veut Se Marier." The Somalian rapper K'Naan, recently a hip hop flava of the month, doesn't do much for me, but he's on mic for only about ninety seconds, so hey. The Nubians, on the other hand, can come over and do some close harmony work any time they like.

Crammed Discs

Tartit is a nine-piece Malian acoustic band—five women and four men, here augmented by guest musicians, including electric and bass guitarists on a handful of tracks—which was formed in a Tuareg refugee camp in Burkina Faso in the late 1990s. At the time, the Tuareg were facing State-sponsored genocide in Mali, and many were forced over the borders of Burkina Faso and Niger.

Events have now returned to something approaching sanity, and Abacabok, the group's second album, was recorded in Mali, in the capital, Bamako, and in the northern desert running up to Algeria. It's an immaculate performance of softly spoken but immensely powerful trance-inducing music created by call and response vocals (sung by the women, who also play hand drums) accompanied by mesmeric ostinatos on tehardent bass lutes and other stringed instruments (played by the men). The guest musicians, including the electric and bass guitarists, mesh brilliantly with the traditional, acoustic groove, and guitarists Mamadou Ousmane Kelly and Ehat travel a similar road as Ali Farka Toure.

"Desert blues" might seem like a glib description for Tartit's music, but actually it shares real kinship with the spirit of the Delta, for the Tuareg have experienced centuries of dispossession and persecution, too. Their culture is singular and unique, embracing Islamic and animistic beliefs, and it's this "otherness" which has led to their oppression. The men are veiled, the women aren't, women are free to divorce, music is central to worship, and so on. The very name Tuareg has roots in prejudice: in Arabic the word means "those whom god has abandoned." The Tuareg prefer to call themselves Kel Tamashek, identifying themselves by their unique spoken and written language, and we should too.

The music on Abacabok is deeply intoxicating stuff, even when listened to through the filter of Western urban life. Its unmediated potency round a camp fire under the Saharan stars must be something very special indeed.

Tracks and Personnel

Congo: Rumba On The River

Tracks: CD1: Musica Tellema; Ambiance Kalle Catho; Maria Valente; Parafifi; Kumbele Kumbele; Alliance Mode Succes; Miwela Miwela; Aya La Mode; Pesa Le Tout; Tokumisa Congo; Si Tu Bois Beaucoup; Independance Cha Cha; Kelya; Biantondi Kasanda; Table Ronde; Rochereau Pascal; Le Temps Passe; Bomonaki Yo; KJ; Mama Ngai Habanera; Permission. CD2: La Vida Africa; Groupo OK Jazz; Paquita; Bantous Pachanga; Festival Bilombe; Cuento Nama; Mantanga Ya Modibo; Tabalissimo; Que Numera El Son; Bina Ringa; Maria Lola; El Que Siembra Su Maiz; Kayi Kayi; Miguel Canta; Camaro; Sey Sey; Alphonso; Jamais Kolonga; Tour D'Afrique; Bolingo Ya Bouge; Calabosso; Basi Ya African Jazz; Guantanamera.

Personnel: Franco; Grand Kalle; Tabu Ley; Nico; Dewayon; Mujos; Sam Mangwana; OK Jazz; African Jazz; Rock A Mambo; Bantous De La Capitale; African Fiesta; Festival Maquisard; Tino Baroza; Casino; Isaac Pedro; Essou; Kwamy.

20eme Anniversaire: 6 Juin 1956—6 Juin 1976

Tracks: CD1: Liberte; Matata Ya Musasi Na Mobali Ekoki Kosila Te; Melou; Voyage Na Bandundu; Kamikaze; Nzete EsoloMaka Na Motote. CD2: Baninga Tokola Balingaka Ngai Te; Seli-Ja; Salima; Tosambi Bapejiyo Raison Na Quartier; Bokolo Bana Ya Mbanda Na Yo Malamu.

Personnel: Franco: guitar and (1:1,1:2,2:4,2:5) lead vocals; Uta-Mayi (1:3), Dombe Opetum (1:4), Youlou (1:5), Boyibanda (1:6), Lola (2:1), Kiambukuta (2:2), Michelino (2:3): lead vocals; Orchestre TPOK Jazz: personnel not given.

Electric Griot Land

Tracks: Griot Ba; Silani; Allah Lake; Le Reve De L'Oiseau (Koto Djime); Africa; Women (Dounia Guinee); Adouna; Interlude; On Veut Se Marier; Tjedo; King Kora; Ma Grand-Mere (Djeli); Sora (Le Nom De La Kora Est Cissoko).

Personnel: Ba Cissoko: vocals, kora; Sekou Kouyate: electric kora, balafon; Kourou Kouyate: bass, bolon; Ibrahim Bah Konkoure: calabash, djembe; Hamid Gribi: percussion (1,2,3,5,7,9,10,12); Laurent Jais: programming (1,4,7,11); Amadou Bagayoko: guitars (3); K'Naan: vocals (2); Tiken Jah Fakoly: vocals (5,9); The Nubians: female vocals (6,10).


Tracks: Tabey Tarate; Ansari; Eha Ehenia; Al Jahalat; Achachore I Chachare Akale; Chargouba; Assinaina; Tihou Beyatene; Houmeissa; Abacabok; Al Afete; Tadsaq; Inbahwa.

Personnel: Fadimata Walett Oumar, Walett Oumar Zeinabou, Mama Walett Amoumine, Fadimata W. Mohamedun: vocals, tinde drum; Tafa Al Hosseini: vocals, imzad; Amanou: 3-string tehardent lute, vocals; Ag Mohamed Idwal: 4-string tehardent lute; Mossa Ag Mohamed: vocals; Mohamed Issa Ag oumar: lead electric guitar, vocals; Tinalbaraka and the women from the Tinaguimine, Gargando, Dag Ajoumaat and Tinlokiane encampents: vocals (3,8); Afel Bocoum: lead vocals, guitar (5); Oumar Diallo: bass (1,5); Alpha Oumar Sankare: calabash (1,5); Alhassan Hamadoun Sarre: njarka violin (5); Yoro Cisse: njurkle (5); Mamadou Ousmane Kelly (5): guitar; Nasser: bass (2,9); Ehat: guitar (2,9); Mohamed: flute (11); Kimi: imzad (13).

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