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!!

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