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.

Return to index...

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 .

Return to index...

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).

Return to index...

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.

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