Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Rough Guide to the Music of Mali

The UK label World Music Network has released over 240 albums in an ever growing collection called the Rough Guides, each honing in on a particular location, genre, or both; typical examples are albums like the Rough Guide to West African Gold, the Rough Guide to Brasil: Bahia, the Rough Guide to Celtic Music, and on and on. It's gem after gem on this one, the Rough Guide to the Music of Mali, which is so diverse in character that any non-expert of African music could easily take it to be a compilation covering the whole continent. According to the World Music Network,
Mali is the crown jewel of West Africa - a vast, magnificent country with ancient musical traditions and many of the continent's best loved musicians. From Wasulu songstress Oumou Sangare and the rocking desert blues of Tinariwen, to the acoustic blues of BBC Award winner Bassekou Koyate and the international stars Amadou & Mariam The Rough Guide To The Music Of Mali explores this thriving and evolving musical dynasty.
The full track list is:

1. Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba Feat. Zoumana Tereta - "Bala"
2. Ali Farka Touré & Toumani Diabeté - "Simbo"
3. Habib Koité & Bamada - "Mali Ba"
4. Amadou & Mariam - "La Réalité"
5. Issa Bagayogo - "Kalan Nege"
6. Oumou Sangaré - "Baba"
7. Afel Bocoum - "Ali Farka"
8. Rokia Traoré - "Kanan Neni"
9. Vieux Farka Toure Feat. Ali Farka Touré - "Tabara"
10. Kandia Kouyate - "San Barana"
11. Babáni Koné - "Djeli Baba"
12. Les Ambassadeurs Internationales - "Mousso Gnaleden"
13. Boubacar Traoré - "Mouso Teke Soma Ye"
14. Tinariwen - "Arawan"
15. Kélétigui Diabaté - "Summertime in Bamako"

As far as I'm concerned, the first four tracks on this disk are simply superb. "Bala" is a rich blues, featuring a mix of deep soulful male and smooth female voices, and anchored by lithe kora (I think)* basslines and ngoni flourishes. The syncopated, instrumental chorus serves as a perfect hook. "Simbo" is a meeting between two of the most respected musicians from Mali, Ali Farka Touré & Toumani Diabeté, who play guitar and kora respectively. It took my ears a few listens to the opening chords before they got used to the strange harmony. The song quickly settles into a more consonant ostinato, and Toumani brings some of his usual divinely great solos over Ali Farka's bluesy guitar in total rhythmic lock. When they come together in the chorus, the concrescence of it all raises the hair on my forearms. I was smitten with the third song the first time I heard it - I will describe it as incredibly beautiful, and leave it at that. Much to my surprise, it turned out I already had a couple songs by Habib Koité on my computer, as does anybody with Windows Vista, in the Sample Music folder that I never bothered to listen to. I've now heard a few of his albums, all of which are solid. Fourth is "La Réalité", a kickass psychedelic funk romp soaked in reverb, police sirens and rowdy crowd shouts.

This is a pretty long compilation, and not all of it, starting with the fifth track, is necessarily totally compelling. But that's okay, since this is after all a "rough guide", intended to give a big-picture view of contemporary music in a very large and diverse country. It's hard to adequately represent all the musical trends of a country while still maintaining a sense of coherence and a good pace from start to finish. In these respects, the Rough Guide to the Music of Mali is mostly a success. A couple highlights from later in the album are Les Ambassadeurs Internationales' "Mousso Gnaleden", with its off-kilter saxophone lines and groovy organ solo, and the jazzy, laid-back closer "Summertime in Bamako". Not quite to my taste are the more club-oriented tracks, of which there are several; but the bottom line is, when it's good, which is usually, it's way better than just good.

World Music Network: Rough Guides

*Post script, 3.25.10: I was wrong about this; there is no kora player in the band. Recently I had the good fortune of seeing Bassekou Kouyate and the Ngoni Ba for free at Amoeba Records in Hollywood, and I learned that all the plucked instruments are ngoni of various sizes. The band is absolutely incredible live, and went way further out in their playing than I expected based on the track of theirs on the album in this review. Amazingly fast dueling-banjo style playing among the various ngoni players, and jaw dropping hand drum solos from their lead percussionist. Bassekou even got psychedelic at times, flipping on a wah switch hooked up to his amplified ngoni and busting out blistering Hendrix-esque solos. Awesome!!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Perfume River Ensemble - Music from the Lost Kingdom: Hue Vietnam

I first became interested in Vietnamese traditional music when I listened to the solo dan tranh works of ethnomusicologist and recording artist Dr. Phong Nguyen up on this website. I don't remember how I stumbled across that site, but those six songs really struck a chord in me, and for a long time I was on the lookout for any albums by the Perfume River Ensemble. Last month I found this one in the Asian section of Amoeba Music in Hollywood. The content is rather different from Nguyen's solo works I've come to love, likely because Nguyen himself doesn't actually play in this recording - he's credited as the Producer and Project Consultant. From the liner notes:
Vietnam's former imperial city, Hue, lies along the beautiful Perfume River near its entry into the sea in the country's central region, an area distinguished for its strong accent, tasty cuisine, and proud cultural heritage. From 1802 until 1945 a succession of thirteen emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty ruled the country from a fortress-like Forbidden City hidden within the walled Citadel, the latter period in cooperation with their French "protectors". The court at Huế was the last in a succession of Vietnamese dynasties which preserved the rituals and music that had existed at least since the founding of the Ly dynasty in the 11th century, whose court was located in Thang Long (now Ha Noi).

The emperors required dignified instrumental music for their rituals and audiences with foreign visitors. The court's power and splendor was demonstrated in its great orchestra (nha nhac), a chorus, and a dance company. Perhaps the most spectacular ritual was the Nam Giao (Heaven and Earth Sacrifice) first celebrated on a vast outdoor esplanade built by Emperor Ly Anh Tong (1138 - 1175). A similar esplanade was built slightly to the south of Hue in 1806 for the Nguyen emperors. The sacrifice took place annually in the spring between the hours of 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. In addition the court maintained three other ensembles: a dai nhac ensemble consisting of 20 larger drums, 8 double-reed shawms, 4 large gongs, 4 small gongs, 4 conch shell trumpets, and 4 water buffalo horns, all managed by a master conductor and 14 assistance conductors; a nhac huyen group mainly consisting of sets of stone chimes and bronze bells; and a tieu nhac sting ensemble which included a lead drum and several smaller percussion instruments playing interlocking patterns.


The present recording resulted from the first United States tour of a Vietnamese ensemble since the end of the war in 1975. The Perfume River Traditional Ensemble, directed by Mr. Vo Que, a poet and singer, is made up of authentic artists resident in Hue. Mr. Manh Cam, aged 78, is both a survivor from the original court ensemble [of Vietnam's last emperor, Bao Dai, who abdicated in 1945] and one of the country's Artists of Merit. The ensemble toured the eastern United States for two weeks during August, 1995, performing at Lowell Folk Festival, Masschusetts, New Haven, Connecticut, at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and at Lincoln Center in New York City. Their repertory includes music of the court, ca hue chamber music, and folk songs of central Vietnam, specifically the Thua Thien Hue and Quan Tri provinces.

The artists sing to the accompaniment of five traditional melodic instruments and numerous percussion instruments and drums. The former include the round-bodied long-necked lute, the dan nguyet long-necked flute, the dan tranh zither with 16 strings, the dan bau monochord, the two-stringed dan nhi fiddle, and the double-reed ken shawm. The percussion instruments include both clappers and pairs of teacups struck together.
The songs have a very ancient and otherworldly feel to them, and at times the singing can be rather abrasive on ears not fully accustomed to this culture, mine included. The ensemble's music is also rarely as downright beautiful as the Phong Nguyen solo recordings linked to above, but it is much more varied in character, possessing many exotic idiosyncracies. To point out just one, the final track, an improvisational duet between Tran Thao's nasal double-reed ken and the clacking percussion of master drummer Manh Cam, almost sounds like Interstellar Space in early Vietnam.