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West Africa: Frikyiwa's Mix of Ancient and Modern

AAJ Staff By

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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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Filifin
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
Kulu
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.

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