Oumou Sangare: Sukunyali

Mali, a landlocked West African nation of roughly twelve million inhabitants, stands out as one of the most vibrant centers of contemporary music. Toumani Diabaté and the late Ali Farka Touré are among the best known "world music" performers of recent times, and the band Tinariwen is one of my favorite currently active groups in any style, while I also give high marks to Rokia Traoré and Habib Koité. Now the Nonesuch label—which has brought us so much of this music—releases a dramatic CD of singer Oumou Sangare, the "Songbird of Wassoulou" (Wassoulou is a region south of the Niger river), which is an exemplary mixture of traditional and forward-looking sounds. This song, in the Soninke national language, is ostensibly about grazing goats but is a parable about African emigrants working abroad for the betterment of their native land. But you don't need to follow the symbolism to enjoy the infectious pulse, and the richly textured layers of sound and rhythm.

I am usually wary of large rhythm sections—two drummers are not twice as good as a single first-rate percussionist, and as the size of the poundin'-and-scrapin' contingent increases the beat often becomes oppressive rather than propulsive. But Sangare's work here proves that, after all, there is strength in numbers. The ensemble projects a impressive collective energy, and Sangare soars over the cauldron of aural energy with confidence and power, more an eagle than a songbird in this instance. This artist is no recent arrival on the scene, but a career of two decades has produced only five releases, and even these are hard to find (for example, the CD of her influential debut Moussolou, a bestseller at the time of its release, is not currently available in the US). I hope this new disk serves to boost her audience and signals more frequent visits to the recording studio in her future.

June 29, 2009 · 0 comments


Jayme Stone & Mansa Sissoko: Ninka Nanka

The banjo is unfairly tainted in the mind of the general public—who probably know the instrument best from the theme song to The Beverly Hillbillies or perhaps the film Deliverance. But the next time you hear someone shout out "Squeal like a pig" when the banjo starts to play, remind the ruffian that in Africa this instrument has a royal lineage.

Or better yet, point the culprit in the direction of the CD Africa to Appalachia, which is the fruit of banjoist Jayme Stone's time in Mali exploring the historical antecedents of his instrument. The kora is closer to the harp than the banjo, yet the pairing of Stone with Malian kora player Mansa Sissoko is an inspired idea. An arcane and still mostly unwritten history lies hidden behind the instruments assembled here, but their combination creates a fresh sound that is neither African nor Appalachian. The track opens with a free-flowing mood piece, an ethereal marriage of string sounds, but in the final 1½ minutes the tempo picks up into a strange type of holistic hoedown. Then at the very close a flamenco flavor enters, all too briefly, before the performance comes to a sudden halt—leaving this listener for one wanting more.

December 21, 2008 · 0 comments


Ali Farka Touré: La Drogue

Red by Ali Farka Touré This record was once so rare, it seemed more a rumor than a real disk. BBC broadcaster Andy Kershaw says he "felt as a gambler must feel when he hits the jackpot" after finding a copy of the Red LP in the discount bin of a Paris record store. When he played this track on the radio, fans responded with a desperate enthusiasm, frustrated by their inability to locate the obscure release. This is magical stuff indeed, the musical equivalent of pixie dust. Touré is the master of his personal, sprightly 6/8, a groove that seems to turn in on itself under his hands. His vamps are simple, but delivered with a holistic purity that will enchant you, almost as if you looked up in the sky and saw that the clouds had started forming perfect concentric circles. A few years ago, the Red and Green releases by Ali Farka Touré were finally made available on an easy-to-find reissue. So you have no excuse for missing out on this artist. Even if you only plan to buy a handful of "World Music" CDs for your collection, this one must make your short list.

December 12, 2008 · 0 comments


Ali Farka Touré: Sidi Gouro

Red by Ali Farka Touré Ali Farka Touré has sometimes been called the "John Lee Hooker of Africa." Such a description tells us how crazy our musical genealogies have become. After decades of tracing the blues back to Africa, we are now tracing African music back to the blues. Yes, Touré's music is somewhat reminiscent of Hooker's hypnotic solo guitar work from the late 1940s and early 1950s, but the Malian musician captures a serenity in his performances that one will never find in American blues. The Green album (original cover shown to the left) is one of Touré's masterpieces, and finally available in a widely distributed reissue after many years as a rare collector's item. This opening track is so relaxed in ambiance, despite the fast underlying 6/8 pulse, that you might not pick up the deep melancholy of the lyrics, which translate as a sorrowful tribute to a friend from Touré's youth. In translation they read: As soon as I sit down my heart begins to weep. When I start to think, my heart begins to bleed. . . . And here we do find an uncanny parallel with early blues, that troubled performance art of introspective and largely unmediated self-expression in which personal tragedy was somehow transmuted into a commercial product. If you are looking for powerful songs that disdain the slickness, the market-driven focus, the chart-seeking vanity of our times, this is a recording that you will want to have.

December 12, 2008 · 0 comments


Rokia Traoré: Dounia

Mali is a landlocked nation that stretches from the Sahara in the north to Côte d'Ivoire and Burkina Faso in the South. It is one of the poorest nations on earth—the average worker makes around $30 per week. But its musical riches are the rival of any other country on this sonically charged continent. This country has given us, to list a few names, Afro-pop star Salif Keita, guitarist Habib Koité, the exceptional band Tinariwen, kora master Toumani Diabaté, and the late Ali Farka Touré, in my opinion the finest of the African guitarists. But this music is sometimes cussedly difficult to track down. You might consider attending the famous Festival au Désert in Mali, but you may change your mind when you learn that you need to fly into Timbuktu, and then make the trek to Essakane deep in the desert, a trip that according to the festival web site is "difficult and potentially hazardous." Fortunately the music of Mali is increasingly available on CD. Even so, it would be worth a long trip to hear Rokia Traoré. This singer captures the hypnotic rhythms, crisp guitar playing and in-the-moment performance style that we have come to associate with the best of Malian music. This artist deserves to be far better known, and this release is a timely reminder that Mali still has musical riches to share.

December 11, 2008 · 0 comments


Toumani Diabaté: Si Naani

The stereotyped view of African music presents it as dominated by drums—you remember the old Hollywood films with the rhythmic throbbing in the background and some old geezer in explorer garb pronouncing: "The natives are restless tonight." I hate to disappoint you, but many of my favorite recordings of African music have no drums on them. In fact, one could make a case that the string tradition is the crowning glory of the continent, and the various traditional cultures present us with countless instruments that remind us, in varying degrees, of our own Western guitars, harps, banjos, lutes and the like.

The kora has a special place in the pantheon of African string instruments, at least based on the hold it exerts over the Western imagination. This 21-string harp has long fascinated outsiders with its prepossessing appearance, the fragile beauty of its music, and its social role as accompaniment to the griots who are the preservers of local tradition and history. Toumani Diabaté is the leading exponent of the kora in the current day, and has been known in the West ever since the release of his Kaira recording in 1988. But Diabaté is more than the preserver of old traditions; he also has focused on bringing the kora into the modern day. He has collaborated with various jazz, pop and blues artists, as well as played a key role on several iconoclastic "world fusion" projects. His 2008 release The Mandé Variations is more traditional in flavor, but even here Diabaté shows off his innovative "Egyptian tuning" of the kora, which gives his playing a more exotic flavor. On this track, he puts his personal stamp on two traditional works—a love song from northwest Mali and a 19th-century griot piece praising Fula warriors from central Mali—and shows that love and war can coexist, at least in the world of musical performance. This moving 10-minute track, and indeed the whole CD, will leave you anything but restless tonight. This release is an important contribution to Diabaté's oeuvre and is one of the most important recordings of traditional African music in recent memory.

December 09, 2008 · 1 comment


Taj Mahal (with Toumani Diabaté): Zanzibar

Although blues music has deep African roots, the combination of these two traditions in the recording studio typically presents a stark contrast in musical styles. Here blues Maestro (also the name of this CD) Taj Mahal is joined by Beninese vocalist Angélique Kidjo and Malian kora player Toumani Diabaté, The results take us into unpredictable world music waters where few blues artists dare to swim. The rhythm, which is broken down into two bars of three beats followed by a bar of two beats, is hypnotic, and the intersecting vocal lines are quite effective. You will hear few flatted thirds on this track, and the performance is a departure from what you might expect from Taj Mahal. Those seeking more familiar blues fare will find it elsewhere on the Maestro CD, but this performance is a standout effort.

October 13, 2008 · 0 comments


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