West Africa: Frikyiwa's Mix of Ancient and Modern

AAJ Staff By

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When you've heard (and seen) enough music, you get pretty good at judging a CD by the cover. Sure, the process incurs a lot of failure along the way, but its successes can be dramatic. Such was the case with the tiny French label known as Frikyiwa, which I first encountered in an overflowing bin at my local indie record store. The photography, colors, and design of two records caught my eye, and the obvious references to West African tradition seemed likely to catch my ear, so I bit on one.

The cover of Siran reveals a smiling musician known as Filifin, bright red and blue n'goni (a lute-like instrument) balanced in one hand, baby blue motorbike steadied in the other: obviously practical transportation for a real life musician. The back side had the same bike, the musician out of the picture but a passerby moving through with a plate of bright-colored fruit. But Filifin looked like he had it going on. Sold.

On the train home I broke open the plastic and discovered the cardboard cover was also the case, unfolding piece by piece into a two-sided, nine-panel photo collage with a disc tucked all the way in the bottom. It was like peeling layers from a large fruit: each fold had something unexpected to offer and the centerpiece was the seed. At home I learned that Filifin and his primary accompanist, N'Gou Bagayoko, are both accomplished string players from Mali. They sound perfectly at home in the ancient Manden music tradition, which dates back through centuries of father-son transmission.

The packaging was the most beautiful and natural thing I had ever encountered in unwrapping thousands of CDs. Fortunately the music was not far beyond. That may sound like feckless exaggeration, but in all honesty Siran was one of the biggest musical discoveries of my life. It was followed by a rapid acquisition of the entire Frikyiwa catalog. Enough said.

Frikyiwa is the brainchild of French musician/producer Frédéric Galliano, who has put his own stamp on the electronic music world. He recently released Frédéric Galliano & The African Divas (Plas America, 2002), brought to fruition after four years recording around West Africa with over fifty local singers and musicians.

But Frikyiwa, born in 1998, is a truly collaborative project. The official maiden voyage of the FKW series came in the form of Manding-Ko, a thoroughly traditional project by Hadja Kouyaté and Ali Boulo Santo, most prominently consisting of traditional kora and vocals. In interceding years, Frikyiwa has expanded to include more traditional music, two organic/ambient electronic productions, a broad sampler, and a set of varied remixes with worldwide participation. Several of these releases offer creative interactive multimedia CD-ROM presentations as well. (Visit randombias.com for the best example on the web, including sound samples.)

In this article I will review the entire Frikyiwa catalog to date—or at least the current extent of the full-length FKW series, the best I can tell—touching briefly on highlights which have set it apart along the way. From ancient past to modern future, the label has a little of it all... and, fortunately for us, these recordings bear the stamp of modern production.

Visit Frikyiwa and Frédéric Galliano on the web. (Note: the Frikyiwa site has been under construction for some time, but its architects confirm that it should be up and running later in April, with lots of bells and whistles.)

European distribution for Frikyiwa is handled by Nocturne (France).

For American availability visit Studio Distribution on the web.

Index of reviews:

FKW001: Hadja Kouyate & Ali Boulo Santo: Manding-Ko
FKW002: Lipitone: Nuits Sur Ecoute: Bougouni
FKW006: Filifin: Siran
FKW007: N'Gou Bagayoko: Kulu *
FKW010: Louis 2000: Nuits Sur Écoute: Bignona
FKW011: Diefadima Kanté: Frankonodou
FKW012: Various Artists: Frikyiwa: La Musique des Maquis *
FKW016: Frikyiwa Presents Electronic Experiences in African Music
(* = recommended for the novice)

Hadja Kouyate & Ali Boulo Santo
FKW001 (2001)

Origin: Senegal/Guinea
Summary: Stripped-down kora with female voice

The first record in the catalog was recorded in Dakar, Senegal by Galliano with fellow DJ/producer Jeff Sharel. It features thirty year-old vocalist Hadja Kouyaté, a beautiful young lady whose incredibly detailed yellow dress decorates a third of the package's photographic packaging. She is accompaned by Ali Boulo Santo (aka Dieruorou Cissoko)'s voice and kora, with a number of other musicians mostly popping in for the 12-plus minute jam "Bakari."

"Djigui," a deceptively simple cascading kora solo, opens the record with a contemplative introduction leading to the bouncing, trilling melodies that are characteristic of West Africa's largest formal musical tradition. Santo's touch is crisp and bright. The title of the record, which refers to the Manding language, also refers to the same culture from which this music is derived. Except for the aforementioned "Bakari," the rest of Manding-Ko proceeds through a series of eight paced pieces of roughly five minutes in length.

Griotte Hadja Kouyate's minute-long unaccompanied entrance on "Agne Tolona" heralds one of the strongest and most spirited voices in West African music today. She's from Guinea, and her outspoken, piercing delivery places spirit above all else. Chances are you won't understand the words, and the packaging won't help at all in that regard, but the music itself speaks volumes. A touch of the modern comes through on Santo's reverberant, echoing wah-treated kora playing on "Toukan," a bit out of place (especially with an almost Jamaican after-echo) but not far from the trance-like feel of the rest of the music.

(Note: upcoming releases are planned for both of these artists: Hadja Kouyate Et Les Guineens' Yilimalo ; Ali Boulo Santo and Manding-Ko's Komo Felle.)

Art highlights: Check out the drawing on the back side of Ali Boulo Santo's kora—the continent of Africa in the palm of a black hand. Multimedia: none.

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Nuits Sur Ecoute: Bougouni
FKW002 (2001)

Origin: Mali/France
Summary: Electronic ("ambient") treatments of night sounds and music

Lipitone, aka jazzer and producer Marc Chalosse, takes to the streets (and the backyards and beyond) with this assembled collection of voices, music, dancing, animal noises, and other sounds of the night. It's the first of two such releases in the Frikyiwa catalog, recorded in Bougouni, Mali in February of 2001. Galliano's art for the release consists of oddly illuminated faces and fabrics, processed to emphasize bright gold, silver, and blue colors throughout. When you lift out the disc at the bottom of the package, you see a portable tape recorder resting underneath: A statement of purpose, indeed.

The music which underpins all the night sounds on Bougouni comes from the strings and voices of local talent (including Frikyiwa leaders Ali Boulo Santo and N'Gou Bagayoko), as well as Lipitone's own organ on three tracks. It's relatively relaxed stuff, nothing too intense, all in tune with the atmospheric effects that pervade the record.

Lipitone's interpretation of night "ambience" mostly extends far beyond the so-called "ambient" textures of conventional electronica. He makes use of the raw material to build up forward textures which never feel top-heavy or lose track of their organic roots. The sound of cicadas, for example, is a regular counterpoint to more human noises. On "Les Somonos Part 1" he makes use of the splashing of fishermen's oars to propel the overall body forward (echoes in the voices which come down the road are paralleled with echoes in the splashes as well). More heavily processed music is present on "Part 2."

Art highlights: Gold, silver, blue and red. A portable tape recorder becomes visible when you lift out the CD, and a lonely candle on the other side. Multimedia: A fun interactive musical flash suite which you can get a taste of at www.randombias.com .

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Siran (featuring N'Gou Bagayoko)
FKW006 (2002)

Origin: Mali
Summary: Spare, intense male vocals, n'goni, and guitar.

Siran was my first exposure to Frikyiwa and it remains a favorite. This release features the young Malian vocalist/n'goni player Filifin alongside Frikyiwa frequent flier N'Gou Bagayoko on guitar. Filifin's primary instrument is the kamele n'goni, a relatively low-pitched 7-stringed instrument with a muted attack and limited sustain. This is his first recording.

He uses those features to effect on "Kokouma," for example, where the n'goni becomes a percussion instrument and serves as an active lead, in contrast to Bagayoko's otherwise repetitive, trance-inducing guitar phrases. In other places, he makes use of harmonics to build strange, otherworldly timbres. It's hard for an outsider to know if this is a traditional style or not, but maybe that's the point.

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.

Art highlights: Fiery blurs of dance and celebration. Multimedia: a series of nine nine-panel interactive videos where you can move the panels collectively but never quite align them. Conspicuously analogous to the nine-panel artwork/packaging that accompanies the album. Deep.

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Diefadima Kanté
FKW011 (2003)

Origin: Guinea
Summary: Traditional female vocals with guitar duo accompaniment

Diefadima Kanté is about sixty, and Frankonodou reflects that maturity in several aspects, though it's her first time in the studio. Her voice tends to be raw-edged, with the capacity to shift from amble to rush (and not at all randomly), but still carrying the characteristic intensity of vocal music from her home in Guinea. Her words (we are told) reflect ancient griot tradition. She sings with guitar accompaniment (Kaba and Cabiné Kanté play mostly acoustic and electric guitar, though it's not clear who plays which), in addition to balafon (a xylophone-like instrument) on three tracks.

Listeners who enjoyed Hadja Kouyaté's duo record with Ali Boulo Santo (reviewed above) will find it interesting to learn that Kouyaté is Diefadima Kanté's daughter. Their styles are actually quite different, as revealed particularly well on the one track where they sing together. On "Diarabi" ("My Love") Kanté leads in with a particularly ragged introduction that segues quite naturally into lyrical delivery atop two acoustic guitars. Her daughter sounds brighter, smoother, and lower on the intensity scale.

On the forty-second track "Tissidiba" Kanté sings alone, accompanying herself on the metal cylinder-like percussion instrument known as the carignan. This is the rawest glimpse you will find, and it's an abrupt contrast to the traditional "Nanibali" which follows—quite clearly and unmistakably part of the Manding lineage which extends back hundreds of years to the Ancient Empire of Mali. Mory Diabaté's balafon rises to the forefront on the next tune, brightly rippling above rising and falling guitar accompaniment that occasionally falls into riff mode.

Unfortunately the sound quality on this record is not up to the standards of the rest, which makes the guitar and voice a little noisy and bright. Otherwise this is a refreshingly roots-oriented record with just the right balance of quiet, spark and burn.

Art highlights: Some of the most beautiful floral wallpaper on the planet. Multimedia: mouse over a series of image slices to view a photo montage with sound. More subtle than exciting.

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Various Artists
Frikyiwa: La Musique des Maquis: Bon Coin
FKW012 (2003)

Origin: West Africa
Summary: Sampler including new and previously released material

This sampler aims at attracting new listeners to the label, presenting as it does seven major artists from the label on both new and old material. It's the best place to start if you're not sure which of the releases above are most appropriate. It overlaps only partially with earlier discs, so it's also by no means irrelevant with respect to the rest of the Frikyiwa catalog.

Since these artists have all been reviewed above, I'll only touch on a couple high points. The repetitive, trance-inducing guitar and stark, piercing female vocals of N'Gou Bagayoko's "Tolon Wilikan" are an odd combination, but it works, especially in light of the stretched-out electronic effects that fill out some of the open space and add texture elsewhere. Filifin's relatively brief "Miri Magni" has a clear call-and-response structure that virtually begs guitar and n'goni alike to converse freely. He milks all sorts of interesting buzzing, scratching, muted, and overtone-rich timbres out of his instrument.

Hands-down the best introduction to the musicians on the label.

Art highlights: A whole heap of colorful flip-flop sandals, with some info translated very roughly into English. Multimedia: An informative introduction to musicians featured on the label.

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Various Artists
Frikyiwa Presents: Electronic Experiences in African Music
FKW016 (2003)

Origin: West Africa/Europe/Beyond
Summary: Electronic remixes of West African source material; dance-oriented

In contrast to the open, ambient textures of the Bougouni and Bignona releases described above, Electronic Experiments is decidedly based on beats—but almost exclusively the electronic kind, not what you get with hand or stick on percussion. This is a remix record, and as such it features a collection of artists who will find appeal with different tastes.

Most of these tunes are dance music of one kind or another, though some stray closer to conventional ideas of dance; some sample huge chunks of the music being remixed, while others prefer bits and pieces. The two freshest tracks are label head Frédéric Galliano's remix of N'gou Bagayoko and Tokyo Black Star's remix of Hadja Kouyaté and Ali Boulo Santo. (Those same two choices of source material make up five of nine tracks.)

Tokyo Black Star places chant-like phrases within a meshwork of relatively crisp beats that insistently imply the clave, Latinizing Kouyaté's voice in an eerie manner that seems odd but yet natural at the same time. The last part is key. Bite-sized chunks, plunked down both in line and askew with respect to bar lines, flow forward naturally. Not surprisingly, Galliano's effort also works well. He takes it straight to the dance floor, and while the four-to-the-floor beats can be at times repetitive, such is the nature of such a beast. The reworking of the vocals are the secret, aligned so that they form a sort of extended poetry.

Luciano's remix of Kouyaté and Santo is full of eerie blinks and scrapes, dots and flicks. It's so different from the rest that it stands out starkly in contrast. The machine-like nature of its framework outright rejects the analog quality that the source material brings to the project.

Frikyiwa Presents brings together a fairly wide variety of electronic artists, with reviving approaches in most cases. It's an interesting complement to the two additional sets of Frikyiwa remixes available on Six Degrees ( Collection 1 and Collection 2 ), which draw from artists like Pole and Catalyst, but it's just plain better.

Art highlights: Red and purple textile textures overlaid with Frikyiwa's leafy plant-in-pot logo. Multimedia: None.

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Track and Personnel Listings

FKW001: Manding-Ko

Personnel: Hadja Kouyaté: lead vocal (2-5,8-9), chorus (5-6,8-9), claps (6). Ali Boulo Santo: lead vocal (3,5-6), kora (all), wah-wah effect (2,5,8). Plus Manfila Kanté: electric guitar (6) and eight other guests (4,5,6,8,9). Recorded in Dakar, Senegal on March 1-2, 2000.

Tracks: 1. Djigui 2. Agné Tolona 3. Si Tu M'Accompagnes 4. Barra 5. Sembéré 6. Bakari 7. Allah Laké 8. Toukan 9. Diefadima

FKW002: Nuits Sur Ecoute: Bougouni

Personnel: Lipitone: samples, organ, production. With N'Gou Bagayoko, Poupé, Diefadima Kanté, Ali Boulo Santo, and others. Recorded in Bougouni, Mali, February 2001.

Tracks: 1. Taama 2. Restaurant "Bon Coin" 3. Bougouni Sou 4. Les Somonos Part 1 5. Les Somonos Part 2 6. Miri 7. Diarabi 8. Foly 9. Fadjiri Seli

FKW006: Siran

Personnel: Filifin: voice, kamele n'goni, carignan; N'Gou Bagayoko: guitar. Recorded in Bougouni, Mali in January, 2002.

Tracks: 1. Foly 2. Siran 3. Kokouma 4. Sondila 5. Yiri 6. Wati 7. Dia

FKW007: Kulu

Personnel: N'Gou Bagayoko: guitar, ka, carignan. With Nahawa Doumbia: vocal (3,9), Ramatta Doussou: vocal (5,8), Mai Sanogo: vocal (4), Maimouna Keita: water's calabash (4), Fanta Koné: concon barani (2,6), Filifin: kamele n'goni (4,7). Recorded in Bougouni, Mali in January, 2002.

Tracks: 1. Cle 2. Yaga 3. Bakari Bamba 4. Sogola Djigui 5. Kulu 6. Niessoma 7. Tielassigui 8. Yala 9. Dogotorow 10. Maman

FKW010: Nuits Sur Écoute: Bignona

Personnel: Louis 2000: soundscape recording, electronic, arrangements, and guitar (7). Kéba Kébé: voice (7). Ka-yito Orchestra: precussion (3). Yaya: Diolla flute (8). Recorded in Bignona, Senegal in February, 2002.

Tracks: 1. Kassoumaye 2. La prière 3. Le kumpo ded reve 4. Le chasseur d'ombre 5. Bignona ballade 6. Malik song 7. Les oiseaux 8. Les enfants du matin

FKW011: Frankonodou

Personnel: Diefadima Kanté: voice (1-3,6-10), carignan; Hadja Kouyaté: vocals (9); Kaba Kanté: guitar (1-10); Cabiné Kanté: guitar (1-10); Mory Diabaté: balafon (2,5-6,8); Kaba Kouyaté: guitar (5). Recorded in Bougouni, Mali in February, 2001.

Tracks: 1. Saokaba 2. Dudyaya 3. Tissidiba 4. Nanibali 5. Mana Mana Kouma 6. Denon 7. Kara 8. Sienkolowani 9. Diarabi 10. Toro

FKW012: Frikyiwa: La Musique des Maquis

Personnel: N'Gou Bagayoko; Hadja Kouyate & Ali Boulo Santo; Lipitone; Louis 2000; N'Gou Bagayoko; Filifin; Diefadima Kanté.

Tracks: 1. Kulu - N'Gou Bagayoko *2. Si Tu M'Accompagnes - Hadja Kouyate/Ali Boulo Santo 3. Bougoni Sar - Lipitone 4. La Priere - Louis 2000 *5. Tolon Wilikan - N'Gou Bagayoko 6. Siran - Filifin *7. Batoro - Diefadima Kante *8. Balafon Fona - Lipitone *9. Kassoumaye Kiep - Louis 2000 10. Diarabi - Diefadima Kante *11. Miri Magni - Filifin 12. Diefadima - Hadja Kouyate/Ali Boulo Santo (*=previously unreleased)

FKW016: Electronic Experiences in African Music

Personnel and Tracks: 1. Bougouni sou (Remix By Jeff Sharel) - Lipitone 2. Sondila (Remix By Blench) - Filifin 3. Sembéré (Remix By Tokyo Black Star) - Hadja Kouyaté 4. Bakari bamba (Remix By Allover) - N'Gou Bagayoko 5. Siran (Remix By Louis 2000) - Filifin 6. Agné tolona (Reconstrusted By Orchestre Maquizard International) - Hadja Kouyaté 7. Kulu (Remix By Frédéric Galliano) - N'Gou Bagayoko 8. Si tu m' accompagnes (Remix By Luciano) - Hadja Kouyaté 9. Fadjiri seli (Remix By Escal) - Lipitone

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