LOST IN MALI (Riverboat Records)

World Music Network's Riverboat subsidiary has launched a new series called "Lost in..." and this one, Lost in Mali is a great start. Instead of sampling the latest albums from Bassekou Kouyaté, Boubacar Traoré, Vieux Farka Touré or others, and remixing a set that would be very familiar to our ears, they have launched forth in quest of the unheard. The result is a fabulous tapestry of the sounds of the streets and salons of Mali from Bamako to Tombouctou. While there's no obvious successor to Rokia Traore or Oumou Sangaré on here, there is Petit Goro or Barou Drame who could emerge and fill the void left by Issa Bagayogo. One of the two producers manages Anansy Cissé and Samba Touré, so is out there on a professional basis looking for the next artist to click. The other runs a recording studio and label based in Bamako. It's a solid line-up as demonstrated in track after track. The levels of quality in the songwriting, production and performance are high and renewed indications that traditions are holding strong in Mali. I'm no expert but I think I hear a hunter's song in here. There are odd hits of rock guitar but fast clipped ngoni with hand percussion and kora are still to the fore. Fine sequencing and a truly great album.


This is only the second collaboration between these two: the producer Ségal who plays cello and legendary Malian kora player Ballaké Sissoko. It's another mellow outing with the two instruments perfectly complementing one another. The first half of the album was recorded live on Sissoko's roof, then a few days later they went into the studio to wax the rest. There is a lot of understanding in the give and take between them: tempo changes are surprising but only to us. It's been six years since their previous duets on Chamber Music. But we should count their appearance on Kasse Mady Diabaté's Kirike as another encounter, and Ségal also showed up on Sissoko's solo album At Peace. Between times he has also added his cello to recordings by Elvis Costello, Sting, Cesaria Evora, and Carlinhos Brown. Sissoko has worked with Toumani Diabaté, Taj Mahal, Rokia Traoré, and others. After years of touring the previous, very successful album, their collaborations have gained in strength: there are no other instruments but in the ambient night sounds you begin to imagine birds (maybe that owl hoot is real), flutes and other strings. Both are classically trained, Ségal brings Bach's baroque chamber confidence as well as jazzy bass-plucking chops and when he drops to bowed continuo, Sissoko knows where to bring the fire. Babani Kone sings on one track, though I would not have minded if they had left it entirely instrumental. You would not expect Bamako to be this quiet at night, but maybe the magical lullaby worked to lull everyone into a happy dream.

REBIRTH (World Village)

A new release from Les Ambassadeurs is cause for celebration. They evolved from other supergroups in Mali "back in the day"-- the mid-70s -- and subsequently went their own ways in the mid-80s. In the late 70s they were the trendsetters, swinging from James Brown funk grooves to Cuban cha-chas but always keeping their folklore in mind, particularly in the vocal styles. Notably from their ranks, Salif Keita moved to Paris and international fame. Cheikh Tidiani Seck was another member with a solid musical career, known today for producing the exceptional Hank Jones meets the Mandinkas album, Sarala. Most of them continued in music and when they ease into a brief set of their hits, it's a joy as rich familiar sounds emanate from the virtual grooves. "Mali denou" was a 1977 track on Les Ambassadeurs vol 1 from Sonafric and also kicked off CD2 of Stern's indispensable box set. "Tiecolomba Hé (Hoodlums)" from vol 2 was also on the Stern's compilation and had Idrissa Soumaro singing, rather than Salif Keita. He is back, singing and playing organ. "4V" didn't make the cut for the Stern's collection, but you may have the original take on Mandjou which came out (in Europe) on Celluloid in 1978. It's a Manfila Kanté composition. He was the guitarist (originally from Guinée) and I am not sure he is still with us. (Guenter Gretz tracked him down for Kankan Blues and Back to Farabanah in 1987.) Guitar is played by Ousmane Kouyaté who rips out some amazing licks right from the get-go. He was one of three original guitarists (the third was Amadou Bagayogo, who now performs as Amadou and Mariam). Ever since Les Ambassadeurs' day Kouyaté has been Salif's right-hand musician. Sekou Diabaté is back on bass. "Seydou" appeared on a Badmos LP issued in Cote d'Ivoire in 1980 and was collected in France on a Universal Music compilation. These are new recordings, however they have lost none of the old magic: in fact, sonically they are wonderful, you can hear so much in them, every percussive nuance, and Salif still pours it on passionately. I am guessing a tour and further recordings are planned.

ONE NIGHT ON EARTH (Matsuli Music)

This is rather mindblowing. Look at the cover: there's a white guy pondering a six-string guitar (count the tuning pegs, there are six). Now listen to it -- there's a sample on the Matsuli page. What do you hear? Why, the familiar plangent tones of a kora! The kora has twenty-one strings and is played with both hands, thumb and index finger plucking out patterns that create polyrhythmic runs, not unlike a thumb piano. The music is not written down but passed on from generation to generation in the griot families of West Africa. What Derek Gripper has done -- and it is really amazing -- is figure out how to get the same sound out of a six-string guitar and by jove he pulls it off with aplomb. Gripper hails from South Africa and has explored a lot of different world music in his twenty years as a guitarist, including Indian and European classical music and pop styles from Cape Town and Brasil. Here he takes some compositions by Toumani Diabaté and rips through them in one long session (hence the title). The production preserves the atmosphere. Gripper tried transcribing parts of the music from Toumani's albums then decided he needed to improvise himself, to connect the dots. Each time he played he found new directions in the music and was able to create his own interpretations of the pieces instead of just mimicking the originals. Toumani himself is a major figure in world music. From a long line of griots, he recorded the first solo kora album in 1970 and at the time critics compared him to Segovia. Like Ravi Shankar he never repeats himself, but creates endless variations on every traditional piece he performs. When the composer heard these recordings in a radio interview he asked the DJ Lucy Duran to confirm she had seen the player do this on just one guitar. What Gripper discovered in transcribing Diabaté's performances was that the counterpoint of harmonic movement over a fixed bass pattern created the illusion of multiple voices and, like Bach's fugues, the melodic ideas swing against the structure, coming in the offbeat to give the impression of total fluidity. We are fortunate that Bach had the mathematical genius to transcribe what he was doing, but when he was just jamming up in the organ loft there is no doubt he was playing jazz. Years of practice and a true musical gift give some rare individuals the ability to transform this mechanical process into magic and Gripper's tribute to Diabaté certainly reaches that level.

BA POWER (glitterbeat)

This is fantastic, a massive line-up of talented ngoni players who hit the ground running and don't let up. Kouyaté has added even more ngonis, it seems, to his band so it is like a whole orchestra of them in all shapes and sizes -- five of them (lead, three medium and bass) with an added guest kamale ngoni on four cuts. Kouyaté's wife, Amy Sacko, sings lead and backing vocals and there is a roster of additional guests including fab muted trumpet on the second track played by David Jahr. This is the group's fourth album and they started well and got better as they have grown in confidence. Despite the intensity, there is still air in the sound so you can hear the percussion and little touches like the slide guitar on track 3, which is a ghostly whisper in the background behind the array of plinked ngonis. The tempos change and you even get a suggestion of a Bach fugue on track 6, "Waati." I swear I hear electric guitar all over this album, though there's only a couple of guests listed on individual tracks such as when Samba Touré adds electric guitar on "Fama magni." So I guess it's Bassekou using an effects pedal to blaze Hendrix-like on the proceedings. Touré is on the same label and so, oddly are Eno and Hassell. Hassell adds keyboard and trumpet in a couple of places. There's also the soku, or horsehair fiddle of Zoumana Tereta who pops up in all the right places, or albums. This is a great set. I didn't want it to end, but finally they bring it down to a slow number and go quietly off into the night.

GANDADIKO (Glitterbeat)

Samba Touré is a(nother) Malian guitar slinger. I liked his previous album Albala, which was recorded two years ago when the fundamentalist Islamic a**holistas had rampaged across Northern Mali while Bamako, the capital, suffered another military coup in the ensuing chaos. Samba Touré is back with a cool approach: his guitar slides in with some alternately snaky and atmospheric effects and a fine production that is best described as smoldering. His ngoni player, Djimé Sissoko is back, and this time he has added a roster of percussionists, as well as a sokou, played by Adama Sidibé -- replacing Zoumana Tereta who guested on the last album. Sidibé also plays the monostringed njurkel. Plus there's electric bass, and a guest Tuareg guitarist, Ahmed Ag Kaedi, who jumps in on the last cut, though mainly it's Samba multitracking. It's a great line-up: there's a lot happening, but it's all clearly defined. The recording was done by Philipe Sanmiguel and Konan Kouassi at Akan Studio Bamako. Touré sings about the general plight of Malians today as well as hopes for reconstruction. It is somewhat optimistic but a dark tone pervades: the title translates as "Land of Drought." The familiar context is laid-back blues guitar with some virulent Malian bursts from the ngoni and sokou in counterpoint, and the occasional twist to rock. This is the most wonderful development to come from the return of (the sound of) John Lee Hooker, Freddy King and Co to West Africa. It's a sharp and varied recording and if you are looking for some exciting new (but familiar) music from Mali, look no further.

MBALIMAOU (Lusafrica 762052)

This is Boubacar Traoré's third album on Lusafrica but the latest in a long string of hits that go back to the early days of recorded popular music in Mali when he had a big hit with "Kar Kar" in the 1960s. He did drop out for thirty years or so but came back in the 21st century as strong as ever, with his fine guitarwork, rough-hewn voice and melancholy lyrics. Now in his 70s, he took his bluesy voice into Studio Bogolan in Bamako with some much younger traditional musicians, including Oumar Kouyaté on ngoni, Babah Koné on calabash, and Yacouba Sissoko on karignan (metal guiro, or scraper). Ballaké Sissoko adds kora to a few numbers and the one-stringed horsehair sokou fiddle can be heard, played by Soumilah Diabaté on a couple of others. Then there's the French contingent: Vincent Bucher on harmonica and Fabrice Thompson who is busily excellent on percussion. If I had to use one word to sum up this album, I would say it's "stately." It's laid back with fine playing, and well recorded, but has none of the fireworks that animate the young contenders. The lyrics are included in French and English translation.

BAMAKO TODAY (Buda musique 3796618)

It takes a lot for a new artist to get attention in the media. Ironically this may be even harder for artist from Mali since that country has produced a whole new generation of fantastic artists since the death of Ali Farka Touré a decade ago, in addition to wider recognition for the legendary guitarist's contemporaries and collaborators. Listing the credits of performers can help but Westerners tend to confuse the various griot families of Sissoko, Koné, Diakité and so on. One name on here doesn't sound Malian and that is Aymeric Krol. He is the Frenchman of the group, and the drummer, playing traps alongside the traditional West African drums, djembe (slapped) and dunun khassonké (bass drum, beaten). There are also two six-stringed ngonis from the Donso region in Wassoulou. So the line up is mostly traditional. Then there are two guests, playing electric guitar on two tracks and acoustic guitar on one track. It's unusual to mix the guitar with the ngoni but here it is. Also the acoustic guitarist, Piers Faccini, insists on singing on his track "Donsulu" which starts out fine, but then goes off a cliff when he starts in with his sodden Incredible String Band impersonation. For me the ngoni doesn't need a guitar and there's no bass either, since the drummer has a strong kick on his bass drum. Unfortunately there is no explanation of the songs on here, however there is a bonus DVD and when I get around to watching it, it may elucidate what is going on. The music stands on its own. This is a tight ensemble and a lively engaging set.

KIRIKE (No Format! NOF26)

There was a time when I mainly listened to Congolese music (so much in fact my girlfriend thought of starting a Soukous Widows' Society), then Cuban music took hold and it seems lately the best stuff coming out as new music is Malian. Yes Guinea, Senegal, Colombia still get time on the turntable, with Jamaica, Ghana, Cabo Verde and India close to hand, but in terms of stuff coming in over the transom I find the Malians consistently good: their musicians are top flight, their singers and songs engaging, and their rhythms put me in a happy frame of mind. Kasse Mady is one of the older griots from a distinguished family. His voice reminds me of Salif Keita's at times. He has appeared with fusion groups as well as Afrocubism and the Symmetric Orchestra of kora player Toumani Diabaté. The ensemble here is more stripped down and there's no acoustic or electric guitars: just balafon, ngoni and kora (Ballaké Sissoko on two tracks, early and late in the set as a bracketing device), while producer Vincent Segal (who also appears on Ballaké Sissoko's At Peace) plays cello to give us a resonant bass line. Makan Tounkara is featured on ngoni (his own album of traditional music appeared from Buda and, like Ballaké Sissoko's, garnered a most favorable review here). Lansiné Kouyaté has also backed Toumani Diabaté and he appeared on Kasse Mady's Kela Tradition album, which Stern's issued in 1990. He is elegantly understated here, playing what seems at times to be a muted balafon, behind Tounkara's ngoni solos. These guys have grown up together since their youth in the National Instrumental Ensemble of Mali and have mellowed in unison. They no longer need Taj Mahal to raise their profile (that album with Taj Mahal was cited by President Obama as one of his favorites), and give us a delightful hour of chamber music from the soul of Africa.


When you have one of those "who are the greatest guitarists" conversations with your music buddies you are often surprised by how many names from West Africa crop up, not just in the context of Franco and Nico, but in global big leagues with James Hendrix, Jeffrey Beck, Francisco Gomes (aka Paco de Lucia) and John McLaughlin. Now to the list of Djelimady Tounkara, Mama Sissoko, Sekou Diabaté, Lobi Traoré and Barthelemy Attisso, we need to add Djessou Mory Kanté. He's not the Mory Kanté of Rail Band who went to Paris and hit big with "Yéké yéké," but in fact the younger brother of Les Ambassadeurs' guitarist Kanté Manfila. That bona fide legend Djelimady Tounkara shows up to trade licks on two cuts, but Djessou is in control and has opted not to have singers on here (he has backed both Salif Keita and Sékouba Bambino on recent hit albums) but goes instead for a more laid-back instrumental set that showcases the musicianship of a group that embrace the traditional sounds of Mali and Guinea. It's the best traditional West African album in ages and reminds me in places of the incredible Hank Jones meets Cheick Tidiane Seck and the Mandinkas album Sarala, on which his big brother appeared. There is organ on here as well as balafon (which is not credited, so may be sampled on the keyboards?), and also fine jazzy bass (Kerfala Kanté) and a top notch kamala ngoni, played by Harouna Samaké. Small details, such as the ending of "Djandjo," show how well recorded it is: as the track fades we are left with the djembe player and the balafon trading licks and you immediately want to turn it up to catch the dying glow of their little exchange. It's been too long since his earlier release, Guitar Sèche on Popular African Music from 1998. This Sterns release will certainly jump-start his career.

TOUNKA (self-produced)

Recent events have stirred the furor about the actual monetary value of music in the internet age. A decade ago the Irish rock-megaliths U2 had an album that snuck out somehow and caused problems (sorry to be vague about this, I know Bono jokes but don't really know his music) because eager pirates undercut the sales. So this time out Apple decided to give the new U2 album away free, and since I have the evil iTunes installed on my computer, it showed up uninvited in my "purchased music" folder, which is a joke because a) they don't have anything I would want to purchase and b) their bitrate quality is crap, so I simply deleted it all unheard. But the U2 = spam backlash was fierce. Because people are so turned off by Apple's marketing, many don't know that for their sins iTunes have also been hosting a live concert series, and I was able to watch a live performance by Chrissie Hynde at the Roundhouse in London (where I saw Soft Machine in 1968) and it was smoking (If you have iTunes you can still see one song from that concert on line, under iTunes Festival 2014). iTunes' line up has been pretty uninspired: tired acts like Blondie or Flaccid Old Domingo or that flash-in-the-pan joker in the mountie hat, when they could have made a splash with say Rokia Traore, or Nakany Kanté, heard here. I guess they need Google Play's Rob Leaver on their programming staff. On the other hand I have scores of acts clamoring to get my attention, with pitches and downloads of varying quality, in the hopes that the blessing of muzikifan will guide them to the top of the world music charts, which are diligently compiled by gnomes in Zurich and then broadcast, vaporishly, into subterranean grottos in the Swiss alps to reappear in unexpected locales. Anyway, regular North American correspondent Ken A sent a link to this artist Nakany Kanté. A Malian singer living in Barcelona, she has released a new album called Tounka, which you can preview on YouTube and download for free from bandcamp (link above). This is one I think you will want to keep. It is excellent traditional West African music, featuring kora, balafon, sax, guitar, kit drums and bass. Get it while you can, keep it, cherish it, play it often and pay for a ticket to see her if she ever shows up in your neighborhood.


Wittgenstein, I think it was, once said, "The piece of music must be played backwards for the spell to be broken." I don't think he was referring to literally spinning discs backwards looking for signs that "Paul is dead," or whatever, but that you have to change perspective to understand things. If we look at the career of Salif Keita it's good to see it in the context of his early work with the Rail Band and his long stint with Les Ambassadeurs which, in many ways, foreshadowed his solo career once he moved to Paris. The late Ambassadeurs work was very sleek and set the groundwork for the "Paris sheen" that was manifest on Soro, his huge worldwide hit. That album was a magnificent achievement but once other artist started to emulate it, with synth washes and studio effects, we lost a lot of the "realness" of African music and it moved to a musically generalized mush so you couldn't tell if an artist was from Cameroun, Mali, Congo, or had even been there. But Keita subsequently returned to some of the more folkloric sounds (e.g., in his album Folon) that marked his early career and his outstanding collaborations with Kanté Manfila, the guitarist. After his debut with the Rail Band he moved from the station to the motel. The Rail Band was based in the buffet bar of the Bamako railway station hotel, but a rich member of the military junta lured Manfila and Keita away to play at the more upscale motel across town, and thus Les Ambassadeurs du Motel were born (with an equally improbable name as their predecessors and now rivals). And they really became Ambassadeurs once they toured neighboring countries: they did come from Senegal and Guinea as well as Mali, so the diplomatic tag fit. A retrospective look back at Salif and Les Ambassadeurs allows us to see how threads of the traditional music became modernized and set the stage for later innovations. In addition to Kanté Manfila, the founding leader, the big boss lured in the cream of Malian musicians. (N.B. Kanté Manfila, the guitarist, must not be confused with his cousins of the same name. One was a singer with Balla et ses Balladins, known as "Soba," another - "Dabadou" - sang with Keletigui.) Salif was not the only vocalist, in fact he was the junior member. Beidy Sacko sang the Afro-Cuban songs (covers of Celia Cruz and Orquesta Aragon), Moussa Doumbia was the R&B specialist, and Ousmane Dia, formerly of the Star Band de Dakar, sang the Wolof hits. In addition we find, in one band, the great multi-instrumentalist Keletigui Diabaté and guitarists Amadou Bagayoko (later of Amadou & Mariam fame) and Ousmane Kouyaté. The songs, from 1975 to 77, have been compiled from scarce albums released on the SonAfric label in France. In addition to their three LPs they issued half a dozen singles, also collected here (though all but one, "Mana Mana" b/w "Ambassadeur," were gathered on the LPs 50.014; 50.030; 50.031, according to Stefan Werdekker of WorldService). A couple of reviewers have complained that they have been EQ-ed too much (one wrote "the quality of the releases is shameful -- spelling errors galore, cheap production, and a terrible flat sound that some tone-deaf fool has applied AFTER the recordings were made. Those Syliphone re-issues are a case in point..."), but a bigger issue is the bonus material. Two tracks have been added from Radio Mali broadcast tapes. The question the experts are posing is, Is it even Les Ambassadeurs? They could be by Keletigui, Bembeya Jazz or some other Guinean band. Nevertheless, for those who don't have the original vinyl, this is a superb set: the first disc is all Salif singing; but the second disc, which also features the other vocalists, really catches fire, opening with a ten minute workout in griot mode, before we jump into one of their R&B rave-ups, "M'bouran Moussou." The organ, played by Idrissa Soumaoro, is more prominent on the second disc, and we also get some trumpet-led descargas and the Latin soul of Ousmane Dia. His "Fatema," especially, is sparking. The flute and violin (uncredited) have been studying Afro-Charanga and stand alongside contemporaries like Nestor Torres, José Fajardo, Eddie Palmieri, Alfredo de la Fé and others. In a military purge in February 1978 the Motel's patron was imprisoned so the patronage vanished, and the majority of the band moved to Abidjan and regrouped as Les Ambassadeurs Internationaux. But here we have the fruit of their two years performing under the thatched cabanas on the banks of the Niger.

ADDOH (Clermont Music)

West African electric guitar. Killer grooves. Solid guest line-up. I know, I know, I've said this before but countries undergoing strife and tribulation produce the best music, and Mali is really on fire right now, both in terms of book burnings and crazy wild guitar bands cutting out of the desert and finding the cool of a recording studio (in this case in New York) to release their pent-up rage and energy. Oumar Konaté is a young virtuoso who has broken out from Khaira Arby's band to take the world by storm. As a teen he joined the National Orchestra of Gao, from where he went on to the National Institute of Arts in Bamako, before playing behind such luminaries as Vieux and Sidi Touré. His international debut is solid and rocking. Professor Louie (from Woodstock, who has backed various members of The Band) cranks up the Hammond B-3 to good effect and there's a smoky lead guitar on "Bismillah (Welcome)" followed by a track that sounds a lot like Ali Farka, with bright metallic lead on Ibanez (a Stratocaster copy?) that includes Zoumana Tereta, longtime sideman on all the best Malian sessions, on "traditional violin" which is of course his one-string horsetail soku fiddle, sawing away on "Ir ganda hassara (Our country is destroyed)" which runs the litany of places -- Gao, Kidal, Timbuktu -- that have been Zerstört by the Fukwit Brotherhood of Islam. "Laissez nous tranquille (leave us alone)" relies a little too much on effects pedals: they ALL seem to be on. I envision Konaté with one foot up on a Marshall amp, posturing in the Rock God stance, then a mirror pivots in and we see countless versions of him receding to infinity, all posing in silhouette. Yes, Clapton never did this, but I don't think he multitracked this much either. Konaté is a bit more selective on the next two tracks which put his voice to the fore. "Ma cherie (Baby don't do me wrong)" is not only a good blues but has a convincing but restrained Muscle Shoals horn section (courtesy of the Ethio-American Debo Band) wringing the harmony. But then "Allahidou (The Oath)" is also over-the-top: again he goes for the "stadium rock" setting and starts at blazing outtro pace. On the other hand when he picks acoustically, as on "Haira (Respect your parents)" you can tell he knows his chops, so though this album tries on many styles musically it's well worth a listen.

MALI OVERDRIVE (Riverboat Records TUGCD 1079)

Are you tired of "desert blues" yet? Well here's a fresh disc that will make your ears perk up. Originally based in Diré in Northern Mali, Anansy Cissé wrote songs and gave them to others to perform, being happy to engineer and record them. But Cissé had to dismantle his home studio and move south to Bamako, the capital, when the rampaging fundamentalists showed up across the desert after the fall of Libya (and you know which part of the anatomy is the fundament, right?). There he met Philippe Sanmiguel who persuaded him to record some of his compositions himself, so Cissé called in his friends to accompany him on ngoni and calabash. He was also able to get Zoumana Tereta, the master of the plaintive horsehair fiddle, or soku, to add his talents to the session. While his main inspiration is traditional music of the Fulani and Songhai peoples, Cissé is also an avid listener to the Stones, Pink Floyd, Led Zep and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, so that modernity and traditions collide in his music. It's really wonderful to hear his effects-laden electric guitar soaring over the ancient voices of slapped calabash, bass and riffing ngonis (there are two on here). Lacking anything else compelling in my new CD pile I have been playing it several times a day. Fans of the late Ali Farka Touré, who wonder where Malian music could go, will be heartened by this departure. There are no tricks, but Cissé has sampled a speech by Nelson Mandela to add some English-language context for his non-Malian listeners.


I've said it before and I will repeat myself here: Mali is the default destination for African music right now. Rough Guide is the latest label to take us to the desert and desert us in the dunes for out just desserts. For their second trip to the landlocked nation, they've put together many of the current crop of great Malian musicians, mercifully light on the sound-alike Toureg guitar bands, and focussed on some lyrical and musically inventive artists. The trip kicks off with "Jama ko," the title cut of Bassekou Kouyate's last album with his group Ngoni Ba. Jammin'! The big names are here: Oumou Sangaré and Ali Farka Touré, and since they are digging back into the past for the late A .F. Touré I wish they'd included Issa Bagayogo who made a splash with his techno albums about the turn of the century. Maybe the licensing was too steep; most of the tunes come from the World Circuit or Cobalt labels. There is one Yves Wernert-produced track from 1998, "Na" by Ramata Diakité. We are also deprived of the lovely songstress Rokia Traore, who'd be first choice on any Mali comp I put together. The compilers also miss the oomph of Super Biton or Super Rail Band but opt instead for smaller ensembles -- more of the chamber music sound. But for me the great bands, like Toure Kunda and Ambassadeurs with Salif Keita, and especially the many regional bands that came up in the 1970s, defined the Malian sound as it emerged in our consciousness. However for a purely big band Mali comp there was African Pearls: Mali 70 that came out in 2008. The darlings of the labels for big bands these days are the Toureg bands with their open-tuning jams, featuring lots of Space Echo on the guitars and a twin-pronged lead in left and right channels: stoners must love it (Especially since the Allman Brothers are retiring this year!). Here Terakaft dose us with a cut from their Kel Tamasheq album which is great in a small hit. I rate Bombino and Tal National above all these bands, but they are from Niger, not Mali (What do we call them? Nigerois?) Current big names on the Malian scene, Khaira Arby and Fatou Diawara, are also well represented. But the older songstresses, like Nahawa Doumbia and Oumou Sangaré also hold up their end. Among the many great selections on here is Keba Solo. You may not want to hear a whole album of xylophone but the lead off track from his Kene Balafons CD is very enticing.

The bonus disc is also exceptional. It is the debut release of Samba Touré, titled Songhai Blues: Homage to Ali Farka Touré, which came out in 2009. I had not heard it before, but his third album made my top ten last year, so I am glad to hear more of his fine guitar and solid ensemble, with bass, spike fiddle, calabash and vocals. I am guessing it's Zoumana Tereta on the horsehair one-string who is in ripping fine form.

KEME BORAMA (Kanaga System Krush)

Tiécoro (pronounced Cheeko-ro) is a Malian griot (sometimes, when they are feeling perky, they are called jalis), a praise singer who sings and accompanies himself on acoustic guitar. Sissoko, brother of Djelimadi Sissoko, often played alongside kora player Toumani Diabaté at the Diplomat nightclub in Bamako until his death in 2012. Although this is his only recording it shows he fits into a long and rich tradition of story-tellers from the Kayes region. The simple guitar-accompanied tracks show what a fine guitarists Sissoko was, throwing in fills that show the influence of years jamming with kora players. "Ti ta ti" is his take on the traditional love song "Jarabi," and one of the highlights of this disc. There has been a spotlight on Mali in the last couple of years since the collapse of Libya and the arrival of fundamentalists across the Sahara who want to abolish sex, fun and music. Poets are witnesses of their time, they relate histories but they also comment on important current events, so it probably wont be long until some griot has the nerve to relate the story of the destruction of books and reign of terror of Muslim extremists in Northern Mali. In his life Sissoko also played alongside the legendary Zani Diabaté. Mali has received a lot of attention lately, and since Ali Farka Touré's breakout in the late 1980s a lot of music has made it to the West, but there is centuries of tradition behind this musical culture. There's a wonderful, well made short documentary about Sissoko and his music that KSK has uploaded to youtube here.

TAMALA (Akwaaba Music AKW047)

Some artists spend their formative years writing material then go into the studio and cut a great debut album. Aminata Traoré has been laying down tracks for over a decade, so some of the music on this, her debut album, has been hidden for 14 years, but it is consistently excellent. As we begin to understand the ethnic differences in the vast area of Mali we learn that the Songhai come from the north where the capital is the legendary city of Timbuktu. Obviously that is no longer a safe place for a woman musician so Aminata has moved to Bamako where she honed her talents backing well-known performers like Khaira Arby and Afel Bocoum. She self-produced this album with help from Mamadou Kelly. It is a traditional album realized in a contemporary musical context, aimed primarily at the domestic Malian market, and not at the Western market particularly. There's a full band backing her vocals, with electric guitar, ngoni, njarka, trap drums, bass and percussion. For some reason all the tracks are 4 and a half minutes long, as if they decided that was the optimum length, or the limits of attention, then they fade out. Still, there is a high level of talent evident here and some trippy beats, as on "Un jour," which is not your everyday Malian groove.


Rokia has five or 6 albums under her belt now, but none are as consistently brilliant as her first two CDs, Wanita and Mouneissa on the Indigo label. They were sweet, beautifully sung and backed her guitar backed with balafon, calabash and ngonis. Touring and performing for over a decade has sharpened her delivery, given her a more rock sensibility, while moving back to Bamako from Belgium has refocused her on her own culture. Consequently most of her new album is top class, balancing her acoustic guitar with bass and drums and the odd interjection from ngoni. Her band is in top form, especially Mamah Diabaté, on ngoni (The others on the album are not in her touring band). They alternate between ballads and rockers, and the ballads have great rhythmic propulsion, nice space for the acoustic bass to come forward and the busy ngoni to embellish the medley. The weak spot is the title cut (despite a power riff that drives it) and the closer "Sarama," in which Rokia sings and raps in English, which is not her forte (despite the earnestness of her message). Sure, she is trying to reach out to a broader audience but people who like Malian music and enjoy listening to it don't care if they cannot follow the meaning. It helps when a song's synopsis is given, and indeed the booklet to this CD includes all the lyrics in English & French translation so you wont miss anything if you want to know. The song "Mélancolie" is in very understandable French, but her English is poorly enunciated and lacks the charm of say Björk's accent. It's funny to imagine her as lonely (the middle of 7 children) but she has moved all over the world with her diplomat father's postings and is caught between many worlds. She's an intelligent and insightful songwriter but her culture expects singers to come from certain social classes and families. She writes about birdsong in the early morning on "Tuit tuit," one of the delights here, and the production also heightens the mood of "N'Teri (Dear friend)," a reflection on the passage of time. Perhaps a spell in New York, Toronto or London would help her English, if that's where she wants to go with her singing, and a live album would broadcast her charismatic appeal to a larger audience.

ADIBAR (Clermont Music)

One of the great things about Malian music is its diversity. The harmonies are often sublime, the tunes intriguing and then you have the added appeal of instruments like the n'goni, ndjarka and the calabash -- they are simple, you might even call them primitive, but in the right hands capable of subtlety. While there is no n'goni, and no programming, this album reminds me of Issa Bagayogo's fine work. The harmonies and propulsion of the songs is interwoven with superb guitar, played by Kelly himself (so deft it sounds as though he has been multi-tracked), who used to be second guitar in Ali Farka Touré's outfit. Brehima Hama Cisse adds ndjarka (one-string spike fiddle) and djourkel, which is a mandolin-like instrument. On percussion we hear Ousmane "Hama" Sankare, who also formed part of the band that backed Ali Farka on his many albums and tours, so the core group has been together and performing professionally for a long time, although very much in the background. They deserve their moment in the spotlight. "Hama" Sankare had a narrow escape when the fundamentalists came to town: they burned his instruments in the street, but he was able to flee to Bamako before they went further and cut off his hands. The French army restored order in Northern Mali but the Malians need to return to sanity and a normal way of life without fear of extremists. Kelly's men are joined by Baba Traore, a young and talented bass player. While the songs concern everyday events, like going from town to town looking for work, they are really about universal issues: keeping your cool in a country that has fallen apart, while a song about taunting the poor and disabled is a call for tolerance. Enjoy a set of pure acoustic Malian music: it is lovely.

ALAFIA (Thrill Jockey Thrill 247)

This is a fine, first class session of traditional Malian music. Sidi is a singer-songwriter in that rich tradition. He thanks National Badema, though there is no suggestion they are on here. He did front the Songhaï Stars early in his career, and has played with Kassemady Diabaté and Bassekou Kouyaté. Early in his career he was regularly compared to Ali Farka Touré, but this is now his third solo album. His last album, Koima, made my top ten last year, so I am glad to hear another set of his consistently great, cooking music. In addition to his guitar there is another acoustic guitar (the exceptional Kalil Touré), an n'goni, electric bass, calabash percussion, call and response vocals, and a brace of kolos on one number (this must be another n'goni-like instrument). During this troubling time for Mali he has been commuting between Bamako and Nantes, France, to make this recording, and writing songs about the ongoing instability and strife in his native land, Songhaï, in Northern Mali. This is fantastically energetic music, Baba Salah plugs in his electric guitar to rip the roof off (it's only thatch) on the second track, "Ay Takamba." Flautist Cheick Diallo as well as some younger talented musicians also appear. The n'goni player, Abdoulaye Koné, gets a lot of space too, making for a well-rounded and varied album.

ALBALA (Glitterbeat GB004 CD)

Now for something completely mellow, or so it seems on the surface. Samba Touré was a member of Ali Farka Touré's band and this is his third album under his own steam with his talented sidemen Djimé Sissoko on n'goni, and Madou Sanogo on congas and djembe. Samba plays electric guitar which makes a nice counterbalance to the quirky banjo-like tones of the n'goni. If you are missing an Ali Farka fix this will do the trick: it's very reminiscent of the great man's recordings. Samba Touré is from Northern Mali and sings in Songhai. As you know Northern Mali is where the deal is going down: fundamentalists, who snuck in from the sands of Libya, are attempting to impose Sharia Law and we know what that means: no music, no education for girls, lots of amputees at the whim of militias and bullsh*t-artists who call themselves Men of God: these evil unwashed pimps even destroy sacred texts in order to keep everyone in ignorance. This is not restricted to Muslims, it's endemic among all sons of Abraham and we must shun extremist Christians and Jews as much as these Muslim fakers. So the songs are dark and mournful, but since I assume you don't understand Songhai, it's like listening to Mississippi Delta blues at low volume. That is to say we love and enjoy Mississippi Delta Blues and even sing along ("With my 22-20, I'll cut that woman half in two . . ." etc) but we don't for one minute associate those lyrics with their true evil import! So I think you can listen to and "enjoy" these songs about Rapists, Thieves and Betrayers. There is also a special appearance by Zoumana Tereta who is the maestro of the one-horse-hair fiddle; he's appeared frequently with the Bassekou Kouyaté group. The album is also infused with atmospherics, courtesy of Hugo Race who is a member of The Bad Seeds (I've never heard of them, but presume more worldly folks have), subtle touches of sounds from synth and treated guitar. He is most noticeable on the last cut, "Bana," which is really trippy with an insistent ominous guitar phrase that gets under your skin.

MON PAYS (Six Degrees)

A friend called to say he had found a great John Lee Hooker album. What's so great about it? I asked. There are no guest stars on it! he replied. It's funny how big name collaborations inevitably fall flat, Muddy Waters or Howlin Wolf expecting the Stones' charisma will give their sound a boost while the guests think that being alongside their legendary heros will carry the event. So I am happy to report no big names on the new Vieux Farka album. His last outing was a wretched collaboration with Idan Raichel that literally sounded like two guys jamming on "open E" endlessly as the tape rolled. I threw it out. Raichel shows up here on piano on one track but is not noticeable. There is a kora player, Sidiki Diabate, who is excellent and the son of Toumani Diabate: so there is a generational connection here as their parents famously collaborated on a couple of Ali Farka's final albums. The album is sincere, and a collection of new songs about the state of things in Mali, a country long celebrated for openness and toleration which has now seen a resurgence of slavery and fundamentalism as Al Quaeda in the Maghreb has started seizing towns and imposing Sharia Law in the north. You can kill fighters but you cannot eradicate fundamentalist belief, so fighting it with song seems like a viable approach. Education vs ignorance, music vs grim recitation. This new album, Mon Pays, is all acoustic (apart from bass guitar) with calabash, occasional djembe and other percussion. Ngoni and kora make excellent contrapuntal balance to Touré's guitarwork in this fine production.