West Africa Roundup, Part 1: Mali

AAJ Staff By

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These three albums are all by Malian artists, but the differences among them could not be more extreme. The first two share elements of West African blues, but Amadou & Mariam extract that essence and meld it with a variety of international styles, often electric, to create a wide-reaching fusion. Boubacar Traoré has always been a blues man at heart, and his stripped-down acoustic performances are the very definition of folk music, given their organic vibe and unassuming (though often deceptive) simplicity. The final disc, a collaboration between guitarist Ali Farka Touré and kora player Toumani Diabaté, updates ancestral musical roots that extend back hundreds of years to the Ancient Empire of Mali.

(For the second part of this series on West Africa, click here.)

Amadou & Mariam
Dimanche A Bamako

While traditional West African instruments and styles continue to attract attention from abroad, the area's greatest promise for international exposure and outright global accessibility probably lies in various fusions with Western pop. Amadou and Mariam, a blind Malian couple who are now on their fourth album, have recognized this for some time and explored various hybrids between Malian music and blues, rock, and Afro-Caribbean styles, to name a few. The couple may already be well-known in France, but Dimanche A Bamako ("Sunday in Bamako") is going to be their international breakthrough. Mark my words.

The curious genre-blending jams on the record were shepherded by the inventive French/Spanish producer Manu Chao, who shares the writing credits on several songs. Chao introduces samples and ambient textures (children playing, street noises) to shadow foreground elements, giving them a real-life context and emphasizing the fact that this is hands-on music made by real people. The ever-shifting riffs, rhythms, and hooks in the music reflect a creative mind at play (in the child-like sense).

Mariam's fragile, floating voice is the most obviously Malian feature of the record, but it's placed in an interactive setting with her partner, with whom she exchanges brief lyrical phrases and occasionally joins for unison emphasis. All this atop a background of guitars, drums, keyboards, and percussion that synergize and reinforce the pop hooks that form the core of each song. The opening "M' Bifé" is a paced, swaying meditation that proceeds seamlessly into an instrumental sequel, "M' Bife Balafon," which goes electric and features riffing on the balafon, a West African xylophone-like instrument, then closes with sharp pattering of drums.

The "hit" of the record, to the extent that one of these attractive songs can be singled out, is "Coulibaly," which weaves call and response vocals atop a funky club groove with thick layers of texture. It's a call to corporal movement that limber listeners will probably find hard to defy, just like the explicit exhortations to "dance together!" on the following song, also club-oriented.

Only one of these tracks (the dreamy closer) crosses the five-minute mark, which is just one hint that they're tailor made for airplay and hitmakers worldwide. Raw north Malian blues, sweet Manding-flavored ballads, snatches of chanson, various American and European pop styles, and rootsy acoustic playing fill out the rest of these fifteen tracks. The buttery swing of "Taxi Bamako," which juxtaposes male vocals with baritone saxophone counterpoint, supplies nearly four minutes of unprecedented groove.

Rather than pushing the limits through postmodern experimentation, Dimanche A Bamako aims to fold styles and instruments together into an accessible, friendly, life-affirming whole. But each song has its own angle, and Chao's offbeat production accents help keep the collection fresh and ebullient. And great fun, start to finish, that just about anyone can enjoy.

Visit Amadou & Miriam on the web.

Boubacar Traoré
Kongo Magni
World Village

Boubacar Traoré stands alongside Ali Farka Touré as a true master of West African blues guitar. He'll probably spend the rest of his life in Touré's shadow, but his music is brilliantly personal, low key, and melodic—and it deserves far more attention than it currently receives. Of course, Traoré was a massive star in Mali back in the heady early days of independence, and his optimistic "Mali Twist" got more than a few people moving in the early '60s (and undoubtedly still does, if only in their memories). But he dropped out of sight a couple of times for economic and personal reasons, and those gaps contributed to his relative obscurity.

In any case, the onetime soccer star, tailor, and farmer is back with a collection of nine rootsy blues pieces on Kongo Magni. They're as soulful, musically concise, and direct as anything he has done. Each piece conveys a message of its own (spelled out in the liner notes) and it's worth taking the time to appreciate the implications of the lyrics, which touch on unity, peace, social harmony, and self-sufficiency, plus tributes to Malian independence, children, and farmers.

The sheer emotion and impact of "Dounia Tabolo" (dedicated to his departed wife and latest granddaughter, who share the same name) manifest themselves in Traore's unusually high, fragile voice and the relative simplicity of the accompaniment, which consists of only guitar and unobtrusive percussion. This piece comes the closest in message to the dark-hued American version of the blues, but it's harmonically simple, based on two keys. (Like much of the album.)

Traore makes judicious use of harmonica (Vincent Bucher) or accordion (Régis Gizavo) on five of nine tunes, and it's interesting to hear how these adopted instruments function within the open harmonies and scales the guitarist prefers. Overall they're a good ingredient in the mix, opening up its timbral range, but somehow the kamele ngoni (the so-called "young person's lute") and balafon (a wooden xylophone-like instrument) sound much more at home. No mystery there, because they're quite possibly as old as the Ancient Empire of Mali itself.

In listening to this music, it's obvious that Boubacar Traoré is hardly a virtuoso on either guitar or voice. But he's wisely chosen a path that emphasizes message, pacing, and an almost minimalistic picking style—which are totally incompatible with instrumental or vocal gymnastics in any case. The notes he plays, and the melodies he sings, are utterly genuine and personal, which is one reason his music is so moving.

Warm, inviting, peaceful, and positive, Kongo Magni is just the thing when life seems to move too fast. Traore is so well grounded that he imparts this quality upon his listeners as well.

Note: Boubacar Traoré is touring the United States in September and October. For the details, click here. Three other Boubacar Traoré albums, including his debut and a new soundtrack, are available for download in mp3 form from the "fair trade" world music site Calabash Music.

Ali Farka Touré & Toumani Diabaté
In The Heart Of The Moon
World Circuit/Nonesuch

This historic meeting between Toumani Diabaté and Ali Farka Touré is a summit in many ways. Diabaté, a kora (West African harp) player who can trace his lineage back to the dawn of the Ancient Empire of Mali some eight centuries ago, speaks the Manding musical dialect of southern Mali. Touré, from the city of Niafunké, near Timbuktu, is a blues guitarist whose rural pentatonic style echoes the music of nomads—though he's fluent in several languages, both musical and verbal. Each is a recognized master on his instrument, and they share an interesting connection: Touré descends from a Manding prince in a family for whom the Diabatés have historically served as griots (musical performers, storytellers, historians, and tribute singers).

That connection translates to the present through the music they make together. These twelve pieces, all but one recorded in a single take, came from a mere six hours of sessions. Originally the two musicians got together to do a joint version of "Kaira," a piece popularized in the '50s by Diabaté's father, also a kora player, whose title translates (roughly) to "peace" or "blessing." But the immediate chemistry between the two players, who have known each other for two decades, convinced producer Nick Gold of the need for a full-length collaboration.

And so In The Heart Of The Moon came to be. Apart from two tribute songs, the first part of the album centers on the Manding repertoire and the last part comes from Touré's material. The floating, ethereal "Kaira," which Diabate has made his trademark song on record (he did a solo version in 1987 and a duet version in 1997), packs more of a punch here—Touré helps carry the song's essential counterpoint and enables the kora player to explore exciting trilling and fluttering gestures.

The kora, an airy instrument with a bright, resonant tone, tends to rise to the top of the mix. Perhaps that's just the way the disc was produced, or perhaps Touré consciously assumed a supporting role much of the time. Either way, it's interesting to hear how Diabaté adapts the kora to the overtly meloldic, pentatonic approach of Touré songs like "Gowni," which also strays from the regular, pulsing rhythms of the first few tracks and moves in a stop-start shuffle. It's not every day you hear blues pieces played on a kora, and while you might expect them to suffer from the translation, they work out naturally and intuitively.

Touré only sings on two pieces; additional musicians tuck in piano, guitar, bass, or percussion here and there. (I really wish they hadn't done that, because it dilutes the purity of the meeting, but the extra instruments are certainly unobtrusive in any case.)

The music on In The Heart Of The Moon flows softly, naturally, and wonderfully as the hour progresses. It never grabs attention, but if you're willing to enter a meditative, reflective state and take it at face value, you'll find it cleansing. You don't have to know a thing about Malian music or these two players to appreciate the resonance of their meeting. It speaks from the heart.

Tracks and Personnel

Dimanche A Bamako

Tracks: M' Bifé; M' Bifé Balafon; Coulibaly; La Réalité; Sénégal Fast Food; Artistiya; Fête au Village; Camions Sauvages; Beau Dimanche; La Paix

Kongo Magni

Tracks: Djonkana; Kongo Magni; Kanoou; Horonia; Dounia Tabolo; Kar Kar/Vincent; Indépendance; Sougourouni Saba; Sénékéla.

Personnel: Boubacar Traoré: vocals, guitar; Kélétigui Diabaté: balafon; Vincent Bucher: harmonica; Régis Gizavo: accordion; Yorro Diallo: kamele ngoni; Emile Biayanda: percussion; "Pedro" Kouyaté & Bamba Dembélé: calabash gourd.

In The Heart Of The Moon

Tracks: Debe; Kala; Mamadou Boutiquier; Monsieur Le Maire De Niafunke; Kaira; Simbo; Ai Ga Bani; Soumbou Ya Ya; Naweye Toro; Kadi Kadi; Gomni; Hawa Dolo.

Personnel: Ali Farka Toure: guitar; Toumani Diabate: kora. Guests include Ry Cooder: Kawai piano and Ripley guitar; Sekou Kante, Cachaito Lopez: bass; Joachim Cooder, Olalekan Babaola: percussion.


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