SONBONBELA (Sublime Frequencies)

This is one of two bands I would have gone to see live had I been at WOMAD in UK this year. The album, their third, captures the excitement of a live show and, as I am unlikely to get to Burkina Faso soon, I will settle for the buzz it generates. (Speaking of civil unrest, Mali, Chad, Guinea and Burkina Faso have all had military coups in the last two years.) The band is tight, powered by solid trap drumming from Abbas Kabore, but the effects on vocals and guitar allow those parts to overflow the rhythm creating a nice giddy imbalance like they are swinging on the verge of chaos. Issouf Diabaté is the guitar wizard on here, every bit as flashy and potent as Bombino or his Diabaté namesakes, that is Sekou "Bembeya" Diabaté ("Diamond Fingers"), Sekou "Bambino" Diabaté or Zani Diabaté. The traditional aspect of the band — the Mandingo part — is singer Mamadou Sanou who plans Doso ngoni and the balafon player, Nickie Dembélé, who doubles on percussion. The hype for the album mentions "dance floor bangers," "Fela-inspired groovers," and goes so far as to draw comparisons to Captain Beefheart's Magic Band. This reminds me of the story of Jimi Hendrix seeking out Docteur Nico in Paris (which is demonstrably false), but it suggests that to validate African musicians they have to be ranked alongside Western counterparts. So, I did not say Okaidja's acoustic guitar reminded me of John McLaughlin, because then you would demand more proof. It was just a feeling, and I no longer own The Inner Mounting Flame to verify the comparison. But I don't think I hear anything like the Magic Band in here. Some reviewer must have planted that notion in the label's head. Yes, Sanou has a gravelly voice, but his ngoni playing is clean and clear (unlike Van Vliet's free-form horn squawks), and while Beefheart had a marimba player (called Ed Marimba), he was more asymmetric than the keen continuo we get here. The percussion here is complex, with congas in counterpoint to the traps, and we might approach something like the Magic Band's forced disrhythmic vocabulary, but again Commandant's men are more accomplished in that department. Don't get me wrong, I am a huge Beefheart fan, I just feel there must be more apposite analogies for the music of this Mandingo Band. I certainly hear echoes of other West African bands, but then you would, wouldn't you? This is a great album, full of drive and the sense all of them are in control of their aspect of the sound and striving to push it to the max.

WARI BO (Social Joy)

A great find from our Washington bureau chief, Ken, this is some deep roots music from Burkina Faso. The group is a griot collective consisting of percussionists and balafon players who continue to perfect and hand down their Bwa cultural patrimony. The label owner heard them by chance at a street drumming festival, posted on facebook, and managed, despite the pandemic to get them on record in Ouagadougou and then issued this stellar album. Four of them are named Koeta and one is a Koita and all are multi-instrumentalists. The line-up is simple, djembe, bara (a simple gourd drum with stretched goatskin head), and balafon. Fantastic playing: lyrical balafon, fierce percussion and soothing melodic singing in call and response style. I am guessing they shift around between instruments from track to track. This is the purest form of self-expression through music and a delight for 40 minutes.

SIRI BA KELE (Sublime Frequencies SF113CD or LP)

We have had quite a few reissues from Burkina Faso over the years, from Oriki, Mr Bongo, Analog Africa, Savanahphone, Popular African Music (I still keep the Bobo Yeye box set, with its album of photographs by Sory Sanlé, close to the action), but this is the first new recording I have encountered since Amadou Balake's In Conclusion, which came out from Sterns in 2015. It's a modern take on traditional Mandingue guitar music of the 70s and is the most exciting new album I have heard in a while. "Commander Dad" (Mamadou Sana), the lead singer, plays electrified ngoni which is now familiar to us from the Malians. There is also guitar, played by Issouf Diabate with panache, while the solid energetic rhythm section of bass and drums brings a funky touch. I can hear balafon in here too as a metronomic continuo in some tracks. The band's roots are in the sound of the classic Sahelian bands Super Biton and Kanaga de Mopti but you also detect the influence of the Rail Band which towered over West African music throughout the 1970s, especially in the few delightful unwinding guitar solos. Tracks like "Keleya" also suggest the guitarist listened to Yves Wernert's work at Studio Bogolan for the atmospheric tone he imparted to classic recordings by Issa Bagayogo and Mamou Sidibe.


Hot on the heels of their fabulous Mali compilation, Mr Bongo drops another sonic bomb: this time from Burkina Faso, a landlocked country surrounded by Ivory Coast, Mali, Ghana, Niger, Benin and Togo. So now you know where it is: there will be a test. As Upper Volta the country was part of French West Africa so predictably is a gathering of people from different ethnic groups which span the country's borders. In addition musicians had to go abroad to record so were influenced by what they heard on these trips. Musically the compilation provides a wide variety of treats. It's not all sunshine and lollipops, there's the inevitable disco number, and you surely have the Amadou Balaké tracks already, such as the definitive Latin version of "Whisky et Coca-Cola" and "Super bar konon Moussa," that churns the funk. You may also have sprung for Bobo Yeyé, the 3-disc set that came out last year from the Numero Group, which was distinguished by a lovely hardback book of the B&W photos of Sory Sanlé (It has the photo of the guy on a moped on the cover). "Sie Koumgolo," as well as "Super bar konon Moussa," were on Analog's Bambara Mystic Soul; "A son magni" and "Yamb ney Capitale" -- Pierre Sandwidi's rocking closer -- were on Ouaga Affair (another fine comp); while others were in the Bobo Yeyé box. However there are plenty of rarities here, including the kicking lead-off cut "Jeunesse Wilila" by Abdou Cissé which you really don't want to fade out when it does. "Djanfa Magni," a famous Manding ballad which was popularized in Mali, is covered in a great version by Youssouf Diarra. Mangue Kondé's guitar playing here, with both 5 Consuls and Super Mande, is outstanding, pushing him up to the level of Sekou "Bembeya" Diabaté. The important thing is Burkina Faso's musical heritage is finally getting its due. Soon Volta Jazz, Super Volta, Dafra Star and Les 5 Consuls will be as well known as the big bands from neighboring countries thanks to the excellent detailed histories of the bands by compiler Florent Mazzoleni, and CDs such as this. We want music to suggest an alternative past for us, and this Voltaic outpouring speaks to our soul, singly or collectively: we find something familiar in it right from the start. It may have been around as long as we have and while we were listening to Paul Jones of Manfred Mann singing "Do wah diddy diddy," some kid in Ouagadougou was digging Amadou Balaké singing "Aminata" -- it's almost as if we swapped memories or recognized each other in a parallel mirrored universe. This music, so familiar after hearing it once (after all it has guitars with wahwah pedals and fuzztone, Hammond organs, saxophones), now speaks to us of our whole life, our loves and disappointments (to paraphrase Oscar Wilde in "The Critic as Artist"). What more could you want.


When "Bar Konon Mousso Bar" burst out of the frayed 16-inch speakers of clubs back in 1978 we knew there was a new rawer sound breaking out from the heart of Africa. Along with "Yeye Mousso" by Mali's Moussa Doumbia we were hearing the birth of Afro-Funk. We immediately said, here's the link to James Brown, though it had been erupting all over Africa long before James Brown hit Zaire in 1974. But in the West Amadou Balaké remained a fringe performer despite what in retrospect would seem to be major inroads. Balaké was born in Burkina Faso (when it was known as Upper Volta) where he grew up performing in local Ougadougan bands like the 5 Consuls and Orchestre Super Volta. He then launched his own group called Amadou et ses Dieux (they recorded on Club Voltaïque du Disque in 1976; the album was recorded in Accra, Ghana and pressed in Benin because of the lack of local facilities). He was a hit maker in West Africa, adapting Afro-Cuban and funk that were growing in popularity. He made recordings for the Sacodis label of Aboudou Lassissi in New York and had moved to Paris by the mid-80s. He returned to Africa to continue a fruitful career and scored more hits, before ending his career in style with Africando. That group was inspired by some of his own studio work (for Lassissi) three decades earlier. Now in retrospect we assemble the pieces of this majestic oeuvre. Pioneering publisher Günter Gretz put together Balaké's West African hits that appeared on two Lassissi albums, "Taximen" and "Vol 3" in Abidjan in 1978-9 as Taximen. They were actually recorded in Nigeria. Other early recordings from the 70s from Super Volta and the Five Consuls were included on the excellent Ouga Affair CD (Savannahphone 2009); more 70s recordings were unearthed by Samy Ben Redjeb and included on Bambara Mystic Soul (Analog Africa 2011). In 2008 Oriki music issued Señor Eclectico, a fine compilation of later 70s tracks including some of the Afro-charanga material from New York. In my passion for Lassissi productions I was able to find those discs, though I still cant find a label interested in getting the rights and doing a proper series of Lassissi reissues. Balaké moved fluidly between salsa, Afrobeat and the warba style of his native land. Inducted at last into Africando in 2000, he recorded three albums with them. Here, as a coda to his career, Balaké returns to the studio, this time with a group of young talents from his hometown, and does a mixed set of new and old material, but calmed down and utilizing more traditional instruments. He is in fine voice, the band is tight. These were his last recordings and are a fitting capper to a distinguished career. He died at the end of August 2014, aged 70.

THE RAW SOUND OF BURKINA FASO 1974-9 (Analog Africa AACD 070)

For his tenth release, Samy Ben Redjeb has well and truly staked his claim to Burkina Faso. This was an obscure area of Africa with even more obscure music until Savannahphone licensed tracks for a double album two years ago. As we know Ben Redjeb went to Benin and found the Poly-Rythmo guys. Now they are re-established, he's working on neighbouring Burkina Faso (ex-Upper Volta), also home to the Voodoo cults which came to the New World. Upper Volta was something of a leftover country. Though occupied by the French, the colonizers didn't create any government bureaucracy, preferring to send in civil servants from Senegal and Mali, and similarly the music industry sprang up by accident, with no state support, no radio station (until 1959), no recording studios (until the 80s), and only occasional influences from outside such as a 1962 tour by Franco & OK Jazz which made all the local musicians envious of Fender guitars. At the end of the sixties two bands, Volta Jazz and Harmonie Voltaique, went to Cote d'Ivoire to record. By the 80s a succession of military coups returned the country to darkness, so their golden era essentially spanned the late 70s. Bambara Mystic Soul starts off with an old friend, "Bar konou moussou," by Amadou Balaké this artist's work runs like a leitmotif throughout the recording, cropping up every few tracks to reenergize the set. The opening cut comes from his Volume 2 album on the Lassissi label, released in Abidjan. (This is one of my treasures: it came out in 1978 and in 1992 it turned up in a box of "dead stock" in Stern's basement on Whitfield St in London with a bunch of other Sacodis vinyl in mint condition that I obtained.) While the first track does suggest "Mystic Soul," the album is not as raw as the subtitle implies. After three funky outings we get into a more contemplative Islamic strain. The fourth track, "Renouveau" by Balaké backed by the 5 Consuls, is an example of that dreamy Sahelian late-night blues that seems to go on endlessly, weaving a silvery trail into the translucent night sky. Their Latin number "Baden Djougou" is another stand out track (It was also included on Savannahphone's 2009 album Ouaga Affair, a gem of a compilation despite sonic problems, now out of print). Coulibaly Tidiane stands out also, and "Kabendo" by Mangue Konde et le Super Mand'e9 has a brilliant drum break. Super Volta back Amadou Balaké on "Oye ka bara kignan," another song that was included on Ouaga Affair. The album is well sequenced and ends on a light note, floating off on "Tond Yambramba" by Sandwidi Pierre & Super Volta.


As recently as the late 80s no one knew who Gnonnas Pedro was. In fact there was a cult surrounding him that had all the trappings of the similar Elvis or Jim Morrison cults in the USA. Was he still alive? Were there more unknown recordings out there and, if so, who had them? Right at the end of his life Pedro was discovered and drafted into Africando so got some recognition for a lifetime of making fantastic music in West Africa. Now we find another artist who has only been known to a few: Amadou Balaké, from Burkina Faso, who also made the journey from obscurity to Africando. Actually, Günter Gretz has been there already, with his reissue of the Taximen album & other hits. Now Paris-based Oriki Music has assembled a baker's dozen outstanding tracks that showcase Balaké's mixture of Malian blues, Latin raves and Beninois funk numbers. It's even got that dreamy Rail Band-like groove propelling it in places. A Burkinabean, Balaké took his gumbé beat to Bamako, Mali, where he scored modest success in the 1960s before moving on to Ivory Coast. The songs in Dioula succeeded in Ivory Coast because of the large number of expatriates living and working there, but he returned to Ouagadougou at the end of the decade and joined the Harmonie Voltaique orchestra. Aboudou Lassissi, famed producer from Abidjan, heard him and promptly recorded him in the early 70s. Having scored massive hits with Monguito, Lassissi was anxious to find similar talent and steered Balaké to numbers like "Yamba," a funny anti-Marijuana song, which was recorded in New York with top salsa session men, and issued internationally on the Sacodis label. So after a couple of incredible Rail-Band-esque grooves we get to that brilliant, dare I say smoking, numero de salsa. With Laba Sosseh and Monguito, Balaké toured Europe with a dozen top-flight salseros from the Bronx, led by Pupi Legaretti, more than a decade before Africando.

This album has much more than that though (-- that's just the first 15 minutes!), it gives us the earliest recordings from the Ouagadougou-based Ouedraogo Brothers, made on a simple Nagra deck and released on 45s. It also samples the funk sides made in Ghana and Nigeria's top studios. After a couple of very good funk numbers we get to "Ligda Remba," an R&B smash from the Ouedraogo Brothers that should have been a worldwide hit in 1975. Here too is something like a hit, his "Super Bar konon Mousso," probably the best-known track on here, funky, served hot with sax. Señor Eclectico is a great retrospective and testament to a towering career in the half-light between popular success in West Africa and undeserved oblivion outside the continent. Surprisingly there's no overlap with the Popular African Music collection (drawn from several Sacodis solo albums), so there's two discs of greatness to catch up with.

TAXIMEN ET AUTRE SONS (PAM African Dancefloor Classics 308)

Amadou Balaké may be new to your ears but he's big in Abidjan. He was born in Ougadougou and gigged with bands in Ghana before leaving his native Burkina Faso for Ivory Coast. He teamed up with Aboudou Lassissi, the super-producer of Abidjan in the late seventies, and followed him to New York for more recordings and then on to Paris where the two lived and worked for a spell. He also sang with Africando on the MARTINA album. OK, so now you've heard of him. He was included on GOLDEN AFRIQUE vol 1 and here's an hour more of his music, which is a pan-African mix and really enjoyable. At first I was reminded of Gnonnas Pedro who also managed to include Salsa, highlife and Islamic-influenced music into his diverse sets. The title track, "Taximen," tells of unfortunate adventures among the nasty cabbies of Abidjan. We also have highlife numbers and a Malian blues, "Toungaranké," which sounds like Super Biton de Ségou to me. Back to Ghana for "Kikiriki": the album keeps bopping about in a most exhilarating way. The tracks were drawn from two different albums recorded in Nigeria but flow well together. The last three cuts are classic Cuban son, and much longer than the previous tracks. They don't quite fit with the dance concept, but it makes a good contrast to what's gone before. For me it's like a separate (not unwelcome) album. If you want to get this disc you can buy it directly from Günter Gretz at his Popular African Music website. He now takes PayPal and will gladly send you any of the CDs in his list (You actually need ALL of them!! But most definitely the ADC series of eight African Dancefloor Classics).

SENIWE (Trace, Switzerland)

Ready for a little rocking djembe music? SENIWE, the new release from the Coulibaly brothers' group Badenya, puts the djembes centre-stage and backs them with balafon, ngoni and more drums. It's traditional Bwaba music from Burkina Faso, though they do occasionally use drum programming and bass guitar. But still the wide array of drums get prominence. Not since Issa Bagayogo's SYA has a folkloric album sounded so fresh. That's not a coincidence as music deeply rooted in folk traditions has a better chance to thrive when modern instruments are brought into the mix, along with ngoni and traditional percussion. Published by Trace in Switzerland, this album will pass by a lot of people, which is a shame. On the instrumental level the music is truly profound. Unfortunately we cannot really get the full dimension of the songs but the liner notes tell us that, as griots, the Coulibaly brothers are aware of their importance in keeping alive the ancestral wisdom through proverbs and spreading a message that deals with contemporary concerns: the transformation of the rainforest into desert; starvation and epidemics which decimate the cities and villages; the respect due to elders; and the importance of solidarity. Beautifully recorded (in Geneva) the Coulibaly Brothers (six hands with one mind!) bring their tradition whole into the modern world.