West Africa is experiencing a musical golden age. The unbelievable diversity of the region's music, often rooted in centuries-old traditionbut just as often attuned to modern production and popular accessibilityhas been piling up on record and in performance at a prodigious pace. So if you don't get a chance to visit Dakar, Bamako, or Lagos in person, you'll find hundreds of alternatives on the shelf in the record store.
The challenge, of course, is making sense of all these options, and for novice listeners that's complicated by not knowing exactly where to start. That's where compilations like these two provide a valuable reference: they survey a wide swath of recent music, allowing listeners with different tastes to home in on specific performers for further exploration.
Mali's as good a first stop as any, and Putumayo's latest friendly compilation does the country's melodic, warm, polyrhythmic music justice. But if you want the raw meat, the crispest and most viscerally moving sounds can be found to the north in the Saharathe subject of the latest Rough Guide. Both collections feature extensive, informative liner notes which provide key information about the region and the artists featured.
Putumayo World Music
Before embarking on this trip to Mali, it's good to understand a little about tradition. Manding music has been passed from father to son in hereditary fashion since the time of the Ancient Empire of Mali eight centuries ago, and the bearers of this tradition have also played important social roles as historians, storytellers, and mediators throughout history. So not only is Manding music old, it's been carefully preserved as a living entity that serves several important functions in society.
And likewise with traditional instruments like the balafon (a xylophone-like instrument with gourd resonators), kora (harp-lute), ngoni (lute), and various drums, including the legendary talking drum. Modern West African musicians have also adapted others, including the now omnipresent guitar, but strings tend to be predominant one way or another. They have also taken effective advantage of modern production, plugged-in instruments, and popular styles from around the world.
Mali has also been a gateway for cultural movement and exchange between West and North Africa, and the Sahara to the north is home for nomadic Tuaregs, who have faced virtual extinction but survived and continue to celebrate their own language and culture. The music of northern Mali is very different from what you'll find in the south, for example, and that's one reason why this collection of music is so diverse.
Mali gets started with a very organic cut from bass guitarist Moussa Diallo, who was raised in Bamako and now lives in Denmark. Light, airy strings (including ngoni) criss-cross in an intricate, web-like fashion, providing a sort of anti-gravity network around the song's catchy vocals. Guitarist Habib Koité, a master of several regional styles who combines them imaginatively in performance, appears twice with his group Bamada, first on the pensive, lyrical "Kanawa" (listen for the balafon counterpoint to Koité's melancholy theme); and the closing live "Saramaya," an electric tribute to women which brims over with joy and celebration, making use of bouncing Jamaican rhythms. (Check out Foly!, Koité's 2003 live masterpiece, for more action just like this.)
The Malian blues guitar tradition, made most famous by Ali Farka Tourénot featured here, unfortunatelyhas plenty of other advocates, including Idrissa Soumaoro, who combines strummed guitar riffs with harmonica and bright, vigorous percussion on "Ouili Ka Bo." Veteran bluesman Boubacar Traoré makes unexpected use of accordionist Régis Gizavo on "Kanou," adding color and texture to his usually open, stark sound.
Listen for modern production and club beats on Issa Bagayogo's "Bana" and raw, almost funky trance blues on the Tinariwen cut (more on that subject below). This collection is notable for the absence of Oumou Sangaré, Salif Keita, Rokia Traoré, and Ali Farka Touré, as the liner notes admit, and you'll want to check each of these artists out if you want a complete survey of Malian music. But these eleven tracks do a fine job in any case. (Listeners with a specific interest in Malian blues will want to check out Putumayo's Mali to Memphis collection to experience some amazing connections along those lines.)
Note: this enhanced CD features a live performance of "Batoumambe" by Habib Koité.
The Rough Guide to the Sahara
World Music Network
The Sahara Desert, a vast and forbidding expanse of sand and rocks that extends from the Atlantic to the Red Sea, is probably best appreciated by Westerners as the inhospitable barrier between Mediterranean North Africa and the deeper, darker Africa to its south. But it's also home for several groups of people with their own cultural identities, influenced by but distinct from the north-south traffic that has occurred throughout the course of modern history (which, for example, resulted in widespread adoption of Islam in the region by at least the tenth century AD).
The Western Sahara's musical culture was recently brought to worldwide attention by the first Festival in the Desert, held near Essakane, Mali in January of 2003. That event drew international attention to groups like Tinariwen and Tartit, spurred on by outstanding live documentation on CD and DVD and revisited in subsequent annual reincarnations.
The Rough Guide to the Sahara treks east and west across the region, starting with the Andalusian and Berber-inflected al baldi sounds of Compagnie Jellouli & Gdih, from the Tafilalet oasis. The opening tune cascades forth with male call and response vocals over repetitive, minor-key lute-like accompaniment, communicating a strange simultaneous combination of deep reverence and visceral motion. Mauritanian vocalist Malouma stands out as a female artist in a male-dominated culture; her "Jraad" is thickly produced and thoroughly modern, with strings and synth textures, but her powerful, melismatic voice radiates energy.
The one group you absolutely need to hear on these compilations is Tinariwen (also featured in a more lively cut on Mali above). These Tuareg nomads got together from the smouldering embers of exile, war, and rebellion during the '90s, when their way of life was threatened on all sides. The moody "Alkhar Dessouf" is raw and piercing, despite its relaxed pace and simplicityas much due to stripped-down vocals as the blues-inflected electric guitars that have become the group's trademark. The 2004 record Amassakoul, from which this track was taken, is a near-masterpiece of blues/trance/energy music.
Listen to Hasna El Becahria, master of diwan music (an Algerian style related to Moroccan gnawa music), for her thicky, chunky flow; Sahraoui singer Mariem Hassan for edgy energy, blues/rock guitars, and trance-like repetition; Tartit and Kel Tin Loiene, both from near Timbuktu, for rough, otherworldly call and response vocals with minimal accompaniment.
This hour of sometimes intense, often trance-inducing music isn't necessarily all that accessible all the time, but that's kind of the point, I think. The urgency of Saharan music means it requires participation to fully appreciate, but if you're willing to take the ride, chances are you're in for a heap of discovery.
Personnel and Track Listings
Personnel: Moussa Diallo; Habib Koité & Bamada; Idrissa Soumaoro; Tinariwen; Ramatou Diakité; Kélétigui Diabaté; Tom Diakité; Boubacar Traoré; Issa Bagayogo; Mamou Sidibé; Habib Koité & Bamada.
Track Listing: Maninda; Kanawa; Ouili Ka Bo; Amassakoul 'N' Ténéré; Gembi; Koulandian; Fala; Kanou; Bana; Bassa Kele; Saramaya.
The Rough Guide to the Music of the Sahara
Personnel: Compagnie Jellouli & Gdih; Malouma; Tinariwen; Hasna El Becharia; Chet Féwet; Aziza Brahim; Nayim Alal; Mariem Hassan; Tartit Ensemble; Seckou Maïga; Groupe Oyiwane; Kel Tin Lokiene; Sahraoui Bachir.
Track Listing: Al Jbal Li Dargoug Aaaliya; Jraad; Alkhar Dessouf; Hakmet Lakdar; Tadzi-Out; ¡Dios Mio!; Bleida; Id Chab; Ikruhuwaten; Malfa Sibori; Tagot; Ihama; Fid El Youm.