A strong return from BKO the Malian quintet, who summon a djinn (the title translates as "the appearance of the genie" — I just read the Norwegian equivalent of "speak of the devil" is "Mention a goblin and he's already in your hall") so we expect a spirited invocation and they deliver. Formed in 2012 their name is the call sign of the international airport in Bamako. The year they were formed the government declared a state of emergency and if you follow the news you know things have gone from bad to worse. The military government has now expelled the UN peace keepers who were chasing the Boko Haram insurgents. They and the derelict remnants of the Libyan incursion are now at the gates of the military compounds where the Malian army is hiding. But the music endures. The members of BKO come from divergent traditions: griots and Bambara hunters (who have different instruments and approaches to song). They merge in the family of BKO with two vocalists (Fassara Sacko, Khassonké Dunun), plus Adama Coulibaly and Nfaly Diakité on donso-ngonis, as well as vocals, Mamoutou Diabaté on djeli-ngoni, Ibrahima Sarr on djembe, and Aymeric Krol on drum kit. I hear electric guitar in there also. I have seen them in concert and they are explosive. Sacko, the lead singer on half the tracks has a great throaty voice, but sadly is going blind. Here he sings about infant mortality, poverty and problems of migrants. One song that jumped out at me is titled "Bamako": from the moment it started I heard "I will follow him" by Peggy March, an American pop song from 1963 with a catchy riff. Yes, you say, there are only so many chords in pop music, but when the riff and the rhythm coincide so forcefully, I am sure there's a connection. "BKO Kagni" the next track, is another example, it has what I call the "Baby please don't go" rhythm, heard on so many Ali Farka Touré tunes. There's great variety and a driving insistence to their music that will draw you in.

TIMBUKTU (World Circuit WCD101)

The great Malian songbird is back with a strong set of traditional and rocking music from Wassoulou. Since the days when Ali Farka Toure coyly denied having ever listened to John Lee Hooker, Malians have come to embrace a strong R&B component in their sound. Her band features Mamadou Sidibé on ngoni, keyboards and backing vocals, Pascal Danaë on guitar, dobro and keyboards, Nicolas Quéré on clarinet, keyboards, percussion and mixing deck, Baptiste Brondy on drums, and Eliézer Oubda, from Burkina Faso, on keyboards and engineering. That's quite a set of diverse and cosmopolitan musical talents. Danaë, a wicked dobro player, is a Guadeloupean resident in Paris, known to me for his part in Delgrès, but also has backed Gilberto Gil, Peter Gabriel, Youssou, Neneh Cherry and many others. Baptiste Brondy, the drummer, is also one of the fierce Delgrès trio, so she has absorbed 2/3rds of that group into her tight unit. There is a long tradition of Antillean musicians in Paris when we think back to Eddy Gustave and his blends of African and Caribbean music, or further back to Ry-Co Jazz in the 60s. The musical envelope is a perfect container for Oumou's still-solidly Malian vocals, without falling into the big arena ponderousness that, for me, scuttled her compatriot Salif Keita's later recordings, after he moved to Paris. There is some of the "atmospherics" we associate with Salif and maybe this will eventually sound as dated, but I think these guys are really masters of their equipment. On "Kêlê Magni," which is a title I recognize from Bassekou Kouyate, I hear balafon and assume it's a keyboard sample, but there's definitely a kora in here. Or am I wrong? The sweetly stinging dobro is a strong element and a nice counterpoint to her plaintive vocals on the ballads.

BAMANAN (RealWorld RW239)

Rokia Koné is a Malian singer who was part of Les Amazones d'Afrique, an all-girl band, or in modern parlance, a feminist collective. Her distinctive voice is as well-known in Bamako as those of other famed Malian songbirds, such as Fanta Damba, Oumou Sangare, Nahawa Doumbia or Khaira Arby. The other component on this disc, Mr JK Lee, is unknown to me, but I gather he is the one bringing portentous synths and ominous hovering digital sounds that bubble up from subterranean depths to envelop the singer. While I may be conservative in my musical tastes, this is indeed fresh: gone are traditional instruments, except for whispers of Mande guitar and ngoni, and to the fore we have a techno-mix reminiscent of the Studio Bogolan days when Yves Wernert brushed up the traditional sounds of Malian singer Mamou Sidibé and notably, Issa Bagayogo. Djembe jumps out of the speakers on "Kurunba," the second single off the album. Koné brings her spontaneous and improvised praise singing and ancestral Bambaran songs, such as "Anw Tile (It's our time)," "Bambougou N'tji" and "Soyi N'galanba." The last characterized by those long drawn-out Islamic plaints (or complaints) we know and love from her compatriots. With her guitarist Salif Koné they are backed by djembe, doundoun, tama, and kamele ngoni; Jacknife (who recently worked with Taylor Swift) throws together drum loops and samples for his part. Both sides work in isolation: Lee in Topanga Canyon, Koné back in Mali, yet they have a great connection. There are some mellow moments and lots of big booming bits which will appeal to fans of Swift and Lee's other products U2 and REM. All in all it's very well done.


This is one of the great Malian big bands of the 70s. Founded in 1966, they were four time winners of the biennial youth music competition with their electrified folk music performed by two singers with trap drums, congas, four guitarists and plenty brass (two trumpets, two saxes, flute). In 1970 they not only beat out the bands from the six other regions of Mali, their members also took top honors for best guitar, trumpet, composer, etc. Their home town Ségou was the capital of the Bambara empire in the 16th century. The Bambara beat swings harder than traditional Malinké music, with conga drums prominently driving the rhythm. After colonialism the young bands wanted to escape from the tangos, beguines and charlestons which their elders had been playing, though they had absorbed some smart ideas from Duke Ellington and other American arrangers. Band-leader is trumpeter Amadou Ba and he is assisted by saxophonist Abou Touré. In the 80s Zoumana Diarra was their drummer on a couple of great albums issued by Bolibana. Here they present a whole array of styles with some classic dreamy numbers that stretch out, in addition to the uptempo danceable tracks. "Bwabaro" is a repeat of that rocking number from "Afro Jazz du Mali" (Bolibana 40, 1986) while the closer "Garan" appeared on a 1977 Syllart album with a generic title (For some reason it's slower here than on the Syllart issue). All other tracks have previously only appeared on cassette in Mali. There are a few moments of tape flutter that could perhaps have been judiciously edited out, but presumably these tracks found on cassette are the best available copies.

MANDE GUITAR (Lion Songs Records 004)

Boubacar Diabaté comes from a griot family in Mali: his mother was a praise singer but his father persuaded him to stay in school. Once he got his diploma he decided he really wanted to be a musician and after mastering tama drum and ngoni, he switched to acoustic guitar. He gigged with Sékou Diabaté of Bembeya Jazz and backed Kandia Kouyaté. Banning Eyre met him in Bamako in 1995 and stayed in touch, so when Badian was visiting New York in 2010 to accompany his wife's singing, Eyre persuaded him to record an acoustic guitar album with no vocals, percussion or electronics. He plays six and 12-string guitars, and is a phenomenal guitarist: we are rapidly hooked. The melodies and riffs are vaguely familiar but its where he goes with them that is intriguing, never resolving on the tonic but bending into minor back ways. He is joined by his brother Manfa Diabaté on second guitar who gives him the freedom to swing. I think I even detect some of the picking tricks from traditional ngoni playing in his style also.

AADO (Naxos World NXW76156-2)

If you scan your Mali shelf you will note clusters of names, like the Kouyatés: Bassekou, Diaou, Kandia and Sékou. And you will know that's because these folk are griots, born into a traditional family of musicians, whether singers or instrumentalists or both. Now based in London, Kadialy Kouyaté is a kora player from Southern Senegal and a famed exponent of Mandinke culture. He taught at Dakar University before his move to the UK where he continues to teach at the University of London, as well as consulting with TV programs. His relocation has also given him the opportunity to collaborate with diverse musicians from Baaba Maal to Mumford and Sons to Shakespeare companies. Although also a singer, this is a purely instrumental album. It is mellow and demonstrates his virtuosity in a sonically sharp recording. If you are into medieval European music, such as lute pieces, you will also hear parallels although, using both hands, Kouyaté manages to sound like he is duetting with himself and this gives the music much more complexity than Byrd or Dowland. There are three traditional numbers and six originals in this peacefully flowing gathering.

BINGA (Glitterbeat/Indigo CBCD110)

Samba Touré is laying claim to the vast arid territory of desert blues that was pioneered by Ali Farka Touré. In 2009 Samba released his first album, which was in fact called Homage to Ali Farka, and since then he has played with the cream of Mali's traditional musicians. There's calabash and other percussion plus Djimé Sissoko on various ngonis. They perform tunes from the Songhai repertoire that date back into prehistory, and modern homilies about how the world does not change but the behavior of men does, causing damage. Once they've warmed up they launch into "Sambalama," as close to the Mississippi Delta as you can get without breaking Covid protocol. Richard Shanks appears on harmonica on this and the next track which is a spontaneous jam session. Solid and groovetastic, bound to appeal to fans of this genre.

NEW YORK LIVE (Clermont Music CLE003)

New York-based Clermont is the leading publisher of Malian music, having issued albums by Mamadou Kelly, Oumar Konate, Leila Gobi, and Hama Sankare, among many others, and this is their third from Khaira Arby. Arby had one of the rawest voices in West African pop, but died in 2018. In our era it's possible to witness performances of such great vocalists by simply going to YouTube and typing in their name, and you might want to do that to get a sense of her electrifying impact on an audience. Clermont has chosen a live show from SummerScape, recorded live in New York in August 2010. Her regular band features Dramane Touré on lead guitar, Mahalmadane Traore on percussion and Abellow Yattara on tehardant and ngoni. There's also bass, rhythm guitars and back-up singers, so basically a rock line-up with Malian strings added. There's enough rock energy to win over the (presumably) white audience quickly as the atmosphere heats up to blistering guitar pyrotechnics. Though not listed on discogs, I presume she had a lot of cassettes under her belt and the songs are polished in performance from years of practiced delivery.

ANOURA (Riverboat TUGDD1129)

A strong return from the Malian desert blues guitarist who began this, his second release, in 2017. He was on his way to a festival in his hometown of Diré in Northern Mali in 2018 when armed men assaulted his band, broke their instruments, and took them hostage. This traumatic experience served to turn Cissé away from music, and it was not until his first child Kady was born that he returned to songwriting. Thinking of his daughter he wrote a song about education, and another about poverty, and while he enjoys the rap music spreading in his homeland he has maintained a mostly traditional sound for his own album. He celebrates his long lineage of marabouts or religious teachers in a song called "Cissé,"which has a nice haunting slide guitar-like wail going on in the background. Another great tragedy befell Cissé with the death of his mentor and friend, Zoumana Tereta, who also happens to be my favorite soku (one-string fiddle) player. But we are fortunate that Tereta laid down two tracks for this album in 2017. "Talka (Poverty)" features him in a call-and-response with a female chorus. The production is fabulous, with great studio work augmented by the mixing, done by Cissé himself with the able help of Philippe Sanmiguel. There are two bass players, both called Traoré, and two ngoni players.

KANAWA (Awesome Tapes from Africa)

Nahawa Doumbia is one of the great female praise singers from Wassoulou, Mali. And her cassettes sell well at home. She sings to women, principally, and for the most part records with simple acoustic backing. Her husband is guitarist N'gou Bagayoko, who backed her on her first album, La grande Cantatrice Malienne, which came out in Ivory Coast in 1981, after she won the African Cultural Institute Prize, awarded in Dakar, for best newcomer. By 1987 she was getting a bit of "Parisian sheen" with her Didadi album on Syllart, replete with synths and 'lectric geetars. Her reputation grew through the 1980s and 90s. Awesome Tapes from Africa was launched in 2011 with a reissue of her La grande Cantatrice Malienne Volume 3. In 2019 they reissued her debut Volume one, and now in 2021 have come up with a cassette, CD, LP and digital release of a new recording that restores her classic sound. For less than the price of a CD you can also access her Awesome back catalogue through Bandcamp. The title song is about all the emigrants, many of whom perish trying to get to a better life in Europe. Stay home and cultivate the land, she urges them. There is light drum programming on here, but also a lot of traditional instruments including the karignan, which is the Malian metal guiro, three ngonis (uh oh, brinksmanship), bass and calabash. Her husband is on acoustic guitar. One of his relatives does a guest vocal on the penultimate track, but Nahawa returns in full force for the closer "Follwilen" which really goes into orbit.

AFRIK TOUN ME (Thrill Jockey)

This is a digital only release from the Malian singer and bandleader who rose to celebrity with the Regional Orchestra of Gao before forming Songhai Stars. Here his singing and strumming is accompanied by the virtuoso Mamadou Kelly on guitar and backed by a calabash player. The title means "Africa must Unite," and the songs sing of courage and resilience in the face of tragedy, however none of them are translated. There are only two guitars on here, so it is a mellow set but lacks the intensity of his earlier Thrill Jockey disc Alafia of 2018, or his 2012 Koima, which included a drum kit and a fiddle player. The obvious comparisons have been made to Ali Farka Touré, but I hear a distinct originality in his guitar, and far less dependence on American blues chord progressions; this Touré remains fiercely traditional in his music though I miss the variety the flute and electric guitar brought to his earlier work (which you can also hear on bandcamp). The global pandemic has limited his ability to perform and travel, and certainly to surround himself with a big band, however this intimate concert will be welcomed by many of his fans.

OPTIMISME (Self-published)

I am glad someone is optimistic about Mali. After the radical Islamists took over and spent a year stoning adulterers, burning books and musical equipment and generally destroying the culture, the French army came and drove them out. This meant they had to move north to Libya and other unstable places or else to Nigeria to join Boko Haram: similarly demented fundamentalist netherthroats. Songhoy Blues is a desert rock quartet who were driven out of their home in Northern Mali. Their songs are musically simple, droning one-chord jams, or two chord see-saws ("Pour toi") or the odd sortie into three-chord blues rock ("Badala"), and as such seemed limited to my ears. I heard enough Allman Brothers derivatives in the 70s, thank you. They do break out of this with some acoustic guitar and traditional percussion and the occasional cover of Fela Kuti or Junior Kimbrough (whose song is the title track of their Meet me in the City album). Researchers found that young people's attention span is down to 7 seconds, and so if an artist doesn't grab you with a hook right from the start of their song they are going to hit the "next" button. Well, young people aren't the only ones. Spotify too have stopped paying royalties to artist when someone skips their track after 30 seconds. They suggest musicians shorten the three-minute pop song even more: chorus, no verse, hit it and quit. "We will... we will rock you." Their singing is indistinct and the one song in English says "Don't worry be happy," but blazing desert rock with flourished bluesy lead riffs doesn't cheer me, even in 3-minute bursts. The lead track "Badala" has an accompanying video, so decide for yourself.

SOUL MAMA (NoComment)

Mama Sissoko's father played ngoni but wanted his son to be a mechanic and sent him to Bamako to study with his uncle. But his uncle was also a musician and the lad wanted nothing more than to master the strings. When he was 21 the president of Mali heard him performing in a traditional festival and asked him to join the national Instrumental Ensemble. When Mama took up guitar it was from the perspective on an ngoni player. In the early days of Independence the radio stations played a lot of American music and Mama particularly liked soul music, which made a lasting impression on him. From his days with National Badema, one of the regional bands of Mali, Sissoko made his name as a solo guitarist and accompanist to Ali Farka Touré. Later he guested on the stellar 2008 recording of ngoni master Issa Bagayogo, Mali Koura. Now Sissoko is 75 and has brought up a virtuoso nephew who joins him on this disc, playing second guitar. One of his sons is also present, having cut his teeth as bassist in Salif Keita's band, and other Sissokos are in the chorus. The spirit of departed singer, Moussa Doumbia is felt. The late great sokou-player Zoumana Tereta appears on "Niama Toutou" and "Homage to Ali Farka Touré." We will miss his elegant presence. We hear Makan Camara on drums. There is a warm Hammond organ sound (by Manjul Souletie, a French rasta producer) which makes a lovely counterpoint to the clipped guitar and bright excursions from the ngoni (played by Abdoulaye "Kandiafa" Kone). This is another triumph, up there with what I call Sissoko's "Mini-Wheat" disc, Soleil de Minuit which came out on Buda two decades ago.

TOMBOUCTOU (Clermont Music CLE029CD)

I've come to look on Clermont releases as very special and am pleased to report on their latest offering. This is a family band of fathers and sons, uncles and cousins, from Northern Mali. Tombouctou (Timbuktu) is traditionally the place considered the middle of nowhere: 20 km north of the Niger river at Djenne, it is on the caravan route to Morocco. It was part of Morocco for centuries and became a center for Islamic learning. It finally became a tourist destination earlier this century, after the popularity of their native son Ali Farka Toure prompted the Festival in the Desert, but Toureg rebels and jihadists put paid to that with murderous rampages. This album is traditional music performed on ancient instruments but has been modernized by the players. They sing in Tamasheq (a Berber language of the Tuareg with its own alphabet), Songhai (the Songhai Empire covered most of Western Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries), French and English. A synopsis of each song is included. The music is cyclical with blazing loops on three electrified tehardant (ngonis), one bass, two regular, backed by percussion on calabashes and hands. The CD has four more tracks than the LP. There's not a lot of variety in the sound, but a little goes a long way, and if you are a ngoni fan you will dig it.

SISSOKO & SISSOKO (homerecords)

I had no idea of this album's existence until a friend sent me the Bandcamp link. I was enthralled and immediately bought it. Had I heard it sooner it would be on my top ten discs of 2019 so it will have to be a holdover for this year's "best of" list. Ballaké plays kora -- which I like less than the other Malian stringed instrument the ngoni -- but he is a fine player and his companion has a nice bluesy tinge to his vocals. In fact, in his cousin Baba Sissoko, Ballaké has found the perfect foil: a percussionist who also plays ngoni and sings. The kora is a constant but the guest is a wizard on many instruments so the varied accompanying change-ups keep it interesting. Both have toured the globe with other artists but this is the first time the duo have recorded together. So they delved back into their childhood when they were musical cohorts in the Ensemble Instrumental Nationale du Mali, both of them growing up and studying, as griots, to replace their fathers in that group. Ballaké's father was the distinguished Djelimady Sissoko who is name-checked in "Djamu Djakoli." The new generation take the primordial sound of plucked strings and slapped skins and direct its warmth to us. It's a great experience eavesdropping on their musical dialogue and their shared heritage and residual youthful competitiveness pushes them to great innovation.


In contrast to simple folkloric albums like the meeting between Ballaké Sissoko and Baba Sissoko, Dan Harper cues up a full-blown studio production with many guests leading to fiery encounters and a deep groove provided by trap drums and electric bass, and the full panoply of effects possible with modern technology. Harper plays all the instruments (though no harp), inviting a couple of guests on ngoni, kora and balafon, as well as a couple of Malian vocalists. Harper married a Malian woman and has lived and worked there as well as in Ethiopia for two decades. (Though since the fundamentalist insurgencies he has moved back to rural Somerset.) He found the local griot music was still heavily tradition-based but now includes "headless guitar," which is an electric guitar plugged into a Roland guitar synthesizer, featured here. The material does have traditional elements but is predominantly rock -- with an incursion of rap, the latter in French (track 6 "Kclc [war]") which is one I skipped. The center point of the album: a hard rock track "Juru" set me aback. It's starts exactly like "Love will tear us apart" by Joy Division: I guess Harper grew up in that generation. He is joined by Banjougou Kouyaté on guitar and Sambou Kouyaté (who had a reputation as a rocker on stage) on vocals. Both have tragically died since these recordings were made. The programming and atmospherics are good and complement the traditional singers. By the seventh track the griots take over, unaugmented. The album, which was previewed on Bamako Sessions (TUGCD1111), ends with a collaboration with Sidi Touré singing and playing guitar and overdubbed on calabash as we all dance to the full moon.


Here is a follow-up to the Amazones d'Afrique's 2017 Republique Amazone. Songwriting credits go to Mamani Keita and Rokia Koné for the most part and both are superb singers. The feminist collective was formed in 2014 in Mali by Keita, along with Oumou Sangaré and Mariam Doumbia of Amadou & Mariam. The latter pair seem to have dropped out but a large array of new younger talent has signed on including Niariu, a Guinean rapper living in Paris, and Fafa Ruffino, a singer from Benin. Singing about gender equality, they have also allowed a couple of boys to join the team (& most of the backing band seem to be males). There is a lot of familiar vocal styling and drumming but it has been treated with synths by the Congotronix mixer Liam Farrell so there is more of an urban dance groove to this album. For me a little goes a long way. The lyrics in English are consciousness-raising and aimed at young women, which is good, but like their first album the mix is overwhelming and a bit overwrought in places where additional guitars, synths, drums and Hammond organ have been overdubbed. You can get the double album on green or blue vinyl if you are bent on such things.


Recorded live in Bamako and New York, Mamadou Kelly's fourth album continues his thrilling exploration of the bridge between traditional Malian desert blues and the fusion possible with sensitive well-attuned guest artists. He and other members of his band played with Ali Farka Toure since the mid-80s, but the music has evolved and the presence of Jake Silver on bass and Cindy Cashdollar on pedal steel add a sweet country and blues touch to the arid tones of ngoni and calabash. The one-string Malian violin is played by Madou Diabate and there are touches of balafon added by Adama Sidibe and a wonderful lyrical clarinet from David Rothenberg. The mix puts Kelly's voice on top but all the instruments work in harmony with echo on the electric guitar (Aly Magassa) and a big room sound reminiscent of the great pioneering Studio Bogolan recordings by Yves Wernert 20 years ago. The atmospherics are wonderful, and the incursions of slide guitar and bass clarinet are perfect. There's also a remix or two from his last album, thrown in for good measure.


After enjoying Hama Sankara's Niafunke which came out three months ago, I found his first album, Ballebé, which is just as satisfying. While Hama is "only" the calabash player he has anchored many famous bands and backed great musicians, including Ali Farka Touré, Songhoy Allstars and Mamadou Kelly. He is the singer, composer and also the arranger of these pieces. Surrounded by amazing talent he brings some Malian blues in a dozen laid-back tracks that are long on tradition and warm as the desert sand. He draws on Peul as well as Songhoy folklore for inspiration. As well as electric bass and additional drums, we hear a monochord djourkel, played by Brehim "Yoro" Cisse, and a horsehair violin (njarka), played by Douba Souley Cissao. These two players contribute original tunes also. Oumar Konaté is the guitar virtuoso backing the vocalist with the well-worn tones. In addition a young singer, Sekou Touré, appears on two tracks. Most welcome is the sweet slide guitar of Grammy-winner Cindy Cashdollar whom Hama met in Woodstock, NY. She plays on three tracks. The LA producer adds synth loops and electronics on two tracks to bring out the dance groove for this satisfying excursion. Here's a youtube video of one of the tracks from this album.

I LOVE YOU INNA (Clermont CLE025)

Oumar Konaté is an electric guitarist in the style of the late lamented Lobi Traoré who, more than anyone else, raised the bar for guitarist in the Sahara Desert. Since Traoré's death Bombino seems like the leading contender for best in the African west. The only comparisons we can come up with to western guitar-players from Europe or America boil down to one or two old rockers, the same ones that these young Africans grew up listening to such as David Gilmore of Pink Floyd, Prince, Jeff Beck, Carlos Santana and ultimately the non-pareil bluesman Jimi Hendrix. This is Oumar's fifth album and follows a pair of live recordings: Live in America and Live in Bamako. He plays with effects, wah wah, Echoplex and choppy riffs which play off nicely against the traditional instruments such as one-string fiddle and the "young man's" n'goni from Wassoulou. His power trio includes Dramane Touré on bass and trap drummer/percussionist Makan Camara. Each track is augmented with guest musicians, including the pentatonic kamelé n'goni and violin on the opening cut, various calabash players (calabashers?), and Fallou Mbaye who plays sabar drum on four of the 10 tracks. Adama Sidibé on njarka features on three tracks and Assaba Dramé, the n'goni player on four, so it's a varied line up and this enhances the overall sound. Oumar also seems to be multi-tracked since I can hear two guitars on the title cut and the reggae number "Almounakaf." There's also piano (uncredited) on track 4 "Badje bisindje," the sad tale of a bride's father who has to sacrifice his favorite cow for the wedding feast.


Another great album where the music speaks for itself. It has to since the information on the press release is pretty scant, other than track titles. The press release does state "Dembele's musical stylings center around the ethereal sound of the kamele n'goni harp which he weaves into a musical pallet that includes layers of indigenous percussion..." When I drove a forklift I only ever encountered wooden pallets, none of them layered nor woven. They also say he draws on the afropop stylings of Salif Keita which I don't find useful or even credible. Dembele is a jeli (traditional singer-storyteller) who comes from Burkina Faso, and plays the kamele n'goni, an instrument heard all over West Africa. There's the now-traditional backing of electric bass and calabash with added djembé percussion and guest incursions from electric guitar and balafon on the romping "Mousso." No idea who other musicians are, possibly Dembele is multi-tracked as he was on his debut album. But do check it out.

AFRICA MIA (Decca Records France)

In 1964, a few years after Independence, Malians swept up in a love for Cuban music, sent a group of young men to Cuba where they learned to play in the style of Orquesta Aragon, became quite popular in Cuba and recorded an album of Afro-charangas. But on their return to Mali in 1968, there was a military coup and the old Cuban-derived music was eschewed as authenticité took over. With only one hit, "Rendez-vous chez Fatimata," the group soon disbanded. Boncana Maïga, the flautist and arranger, went on to a successful career, notably with Africando, but the other band members vanished into obscurity. Years ago I dismissed their album as a poor imitation of Aragon and a dusty copy sits on my shelf unplayed. So with this new issue and its added tracks I am hearing it anew. But I am still not convinced, and it seems they producers were not sure either. There are thirteen tracks which are seven originals from 1967 and half-a-dozen remakes of their best-known African charangas in a sober measured, deliberate way: no improvisation, just straightforward replicas suggesting students attempting to cover an orquesta Aragon performance note perfect. There's no spark, no sudden outburst of obvious genius seizing the moment. The new version of "Fatimata" adds Mory Kanté but has an identical arrangement to the original. The agonizingly wet "Andurina" reminded me forcefully of Mamas & Papas and other folk-rock bands of the 60s. After they nod off with rehearsals of "Palomina" and "Boogaloo Sera Mali," there are four remixes, that are not only gratuitous, they completely alter the mood and leave a bad taste in the mouth. See for yourself. If you like African covers of Cuban music you might want to check this out. However Orquesta Aragon are still going strong and are always worth hearing.

LEMBI (JazzLand)

Once again I am indebted to our Washington Bureau chief, Ken A, for alerting me to this, and as Ken points out it's an odd mashup of two albums that maybe should have been kept separate: one is a set of traditional Malian music, with Peul flute, kora, balafon, hand percussion and a mellow vibe. Then as soon as one song ends on comes a techno remix with drum machine, burbling synth and an edginess that wipes out the mood. It's not bad, by no means, it's just a shock. I like the remixes, they remind of of the late lamented Issa Bagayogo; I also like the traditional tunes. Problem is if I separate them the traditional set might put me on the nod so I need the change of pace the remixes bring, even though on their own they feel incomplete. However, eventually as the tempo warms the two become less distinct so there is something satisfying about having the traditional blend into the modern as on the remix of "Bissa" by Prins Thomas. Though Barry grew up in Burkina Faso I get the feeling he lives in Norway since his label is based in Oslo and the names of the remixers sound Scandinavian. We gather he made his own flute and string instruments and his accompanist is Solo Diarra on djembe and balafon. A jazz piano enters halfway through and you think maybe it's a different album; this track "Serendou (Bugge Wesseltoft Remix)" truly is distracting. It's not a remix per se and seems quite out of place. Bugge should have saved it for his own album. "Soukalen" sounds a lot like Issa Bagayogo: it even has a spoken interlude. The Sex Judas remix that follows is gratuitous and off the rails. Then there's another go at the same tune: the Bendik Baksaas Remake which is ominous rumblings at the end of a long dark tunnel; neither of these does justice to the tune. Barry reclaims ownership of the set with the closing track "Mballa" on flute, balafon and hand drums. It's a long strange trip, indeed.

NIAFUNKE (Clermont Music)

Mali is the gift that keeps on giving. It's sad but true that countries in strife produce excellent music (Congo, Angola, Haiti come to mind). Last week I read that 130 Malians had been massacred and their village destroyed. Nothing came up on the news, so I went back to the source, Al Jazeera, and it turns out it was inter-ethnic rivalry between Donzo hunters who were upset at Fulani grazing their animals on their land. So it's not radical Islam, but the shortage of water and other resources leading folk to murder their neighbors. Not al-Qaeda? That's alright then, not our problem. At least that's what our leaders tell us through the media. Hama Sankaré is a singer and calabashist (calabasher? he plays a gourd) and surrounds himself with fine traditional and modern musicians to present a great set of the modernized Malian folk music we know and love. He formerly backed Ali Farka Toure and has performed with l'Orchestre de Gao, Songhoy Allstars, Mamadou Kelly and Afel Boucoum (who appears here as backing vocalist). From Ali he has that American blues feel but his guitar player, Alibaba Traore, is more into rock blazers. His longtime partner Kande Sissoko plies the ngoni. The first couple of tracks are straight ahead blues-rock rave-ups and as close to the Ali Farka sound as I've heard. There's a mellow piece "Tiega Mali (Today Mali suffers)" to bring us down to the space needed to hear a group of traditional tunes with ngoni which are the heart of the disc. Hama's conscious lyrics (which are summarized) are added to the adapted melodies. He praises the hunters, as well as the Fulani (Peul). And they gradually turn up the flame so they get the rock blues fans nodding along to the rhythm.

MIRI (Out Here Records OH32)

Each new release from Bassekou Kouyate is eagerly awaited, and his fifth album came out on CD & LP on February 1 2019. Surrounded by a host of guest artists, Kouyate returned to his hometown of Garana, Mali, which is a village on the banks of the Niger River. The title song means "Dream" or "contemplation" and is about his mother who passed away recently. The whole thing is very mellow as he gets away from the noise, traffic, turmoil and politics of Bamako to ponder life. Kouyate's wife Amy Sacko is the lead singer on half the tracks, and she surrenders the mike to Habib Koite, Afel Bocoum and Abdoulaye Diabate by turns. We also hear Majid Bekkas on oud and vocals on the opening cut "Kanougnon," and Yasel Gonzalez Rivera singing lead on "Wele Cuba," which, as you guessed, is a Latin number but, to me, feels out of place here. Bassekou grew up listening to Maravillas de Mali and other local bands doing covers of Cuban songs and often does a version of "Guantanamera" to end his live shows, hence the taste for a Latin groove. The album is dedicated to two former members of the group who made a huge impact on Malian music before passing away, soku (fiddle) player Zoumana Tereta and Kassemady Diabate. Mostly the musical accompaniment is three ngonis: Bassekou on lead, with a secondary player, Abou Sissoko, and Madou Kouyate on bass ngoni, plus two percussionists. The title cut is an instrumental with no frills and is very lovely. A guitar is added for "Konya" which is another high spot. Afel Bocoum, who used to be in Ali Farka Touré's band, sings about the plight of the Peul, sedentary farmers who exist from Senegal to C.A.R. but who ranks have been decimated by the unrest caused by Islamic fundamentalists who have destroyed their homes and stolen their cattle. (The booklet explains all the songs in French and English.) The album ends with a tribute to Kouyate's late mother, who used to travel around singing to support her family with young Kouyate on ngoni. Sacko's vocal delivery pays homage to her mother-in-law's singing style. A very fine effort.

MELODIES MANDE (Sans Commentaire)

In West Africa, the piano is called the White Man's balafon ("Toubabou balafola"), but the White man has his own balafon-like instrument, the Xylophone or Vibraphone, the sound of which which I really dislike. This is not an antipathy to all metalophones as I love the gender, the Balinese metal keys suspended over bamboo tubes and hit with mallets (pongels), but my favorite is the struck keys of the wooden thing called balafon, which is a legless marimba, without the resonating tubes, though it may have gourd resonators attached. It is a traditional Manding instrument, used in Mali to accompany story tellers. Livio Camara was director of the Instrumental Ensemble of Guinea for a decade. On this 4-track EP he is accompanied by a small trio of supporting musicians, playing electric bass and calabash along with Kandiafa on ngoni, a hot young musician (nephew of the great Mama Sissoko) who has been called the "Django Reinhardt of Mali" and who has his own album out Mali Country, which is hailed as a groundbreaking Afro-House recording, with remixes. Vocals are provided by another journeyman, Kabadjan Konate, who sang formerly with Vieux Kanté, the blind kamale ngoni player who died suddenly in 2005. Short as it is, this is a very sweet outing, and I look forward to more from them.

WANDE (Glitterbeat)

I am a big fan of Malian music so am always eager to hear the new releases and stay current with developments, but there's an increasing reliance on the novelty remix or collaboration, with producers eager to add guest musicians on classical or country and western instruments. Samba Touré gives us his own music, unadulterated, and it is very much in the mode of American blues, though he resists the label. This is his third release. I don't care what he says, it's a blues/rock/R&B album with Malian overtones, no question. I am not complaining: I like it a lot for what it is. He used to be accompanist to Ali Farka Touré, whose best-selling record was his 1994 collaboration with American Ry Cooder, Talking Timbuktu. Though I have told the story before, it's worth repeating that when Fred Hill and I interviewed Ali on KUSF on his first American tour, Fred had the idea of doing a "Downbeat"-style interview with fragments of music for him to comment on: Wes Montgomery, George Benson, Charlie Christian, etc. We played him some John Lee Hooker. He denied he knew it and blustered about having no idea what we were talking about. It made for an uncomfortable hour, trying to get him to open up about his influences. But there's no denying the Howling Wolf, Buddy Guy and B.B. King elements in this music. There's even J.J. Cale, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Johnny Otis and a load of other Western guitar influences clearly audible in this new disc from Samba. You can sing the lyrics to "Baby please don't go," or "Willie and the hand jive" over many of the grooves, which I inevitably find myself doing. I grew up on Chicago Blues-derived music so you can't fool me. There's tama (talking drum) on here, and soku too, but the last track is "Tribute to Zoumana Tereta": this sadly signals the demise of the great soku player-- another blow, though it is a fine moody closer. Overall it's a very satisfying set of spontaneous grooves.

SOKU FOLA (Kanaga System Krush KSKCD009)

If you ask yourself, Do I need another Malian album? then you should think about what kinds of Malian music you have in your collection. If it's all hot guitar slingers, you need some female praise singers; if it's all big rocking bands, you probably need some Fulani folk music. You have to maintain a balance. There's a permeable border between the traditional and modern Malian music, so I don't keep my "folk" or griot music separate from the modern stuff. Zoumana Tereta, from Segou, is in the traditional camp, sawing on his single horsehair fiddle, but he was always in demand to play with the modernizers. On here there's acoustic guitar (Vieux Parré), calabash and also bass played on a djeli n'goni. The repertoire is fables and praise songs, sung hoarsely (not horsely) by Zoumana. He grew up playing traditional music, including flute, around Bamako, and was the go-to guy for a touch of traditional fiddle, so appeared on literally hundreds of cassettes. He also toured the world, backing the likes of Oumou Sangare, Nahawa Doumbia, Sali Sidibe and, on the gentlemen's side, Toumani Diabaté, Samba Touré & Bassekou Kouyaté. This album, recorded in one day February 16, 2008 in Studio Bogolon, Bamako, is a perfect balance of the four components: acoustic guitar, the bass n'goni and slapped calabash and Tereta's horsehair fiddle.

I also found a 4-track EP by Zoumana, Bozo Fama, on bandcamp, that was released in February 2018.

BAMAKO SESSIONS (Riverboat Records TUGCD1111)

Invisible System (-- not the group Baiana System who had a hit with "Invisavel" last year --) is a one-man entity called Dan Harper who went to Mali as an aid worker in 1999, and fell in love with a local woman. Harper also moonlighted as a record producer, mastering the fine Lost in Mali compilation for Riverboat, and met many local musicians in the forest on the outskirts of Bamako. Recently he returned to his wife's home, and for a month kept open house where local musicians were invited to drop by any time and jam. Some brought ngonis, others kora or balafon. He rolled tape (metaphorically speaking) and edited the results into this disc. Harper played guitar with them and then took the tracks back to UK where he added electric bass and some rhythm tracks on synth and traps. The result is a patchwork, like a holy man's cloak striving to be green all over with patches of white sunlight glinting through. This is a mellow wandering album, good for light background listening but I find when you try to put your finger on it, it evaporates like a mirage.

MALI FOLI CURA (Buda music)

Founded in 2014 as BKO Quintet, and named for their hometown of Bamako, Mali, BKO have been touring endlessly and sharpening their chops in front of festival audiences. The line-up is billed as two ngoni players, djembe and drum set. But that has to be a guitar on the opening track "Tangwanana," though the blurb only calls it "griot's guitar." It sure is loud and electrifying. The success of BKO is in blending two distinct types of Malian music: that of the traditional griots, singers and story tellers, and the hunters. Each group has their own style of ngoni: the hunters play the donso ngoni and the griots the djeli ngoni. Adama Koulibaly plies the former and Abduolaye Koné the latter. The ngonis are amplified so the drummer has forsaken slapping a calabash for a full-on drum kit, raising the temperature of the set from folk-rock to hard rock. While most of the tunes go from "blazing" to "stun," they do slow it down for a final ballad, "Mon amour," and play with somewhat less ferocity. Great vocals and fine production push this ahead of the pack as one of the hottest new releases from West Africa.

BOLON STAR (Mondo Tunes, streaming or download on-line)

When you think of timeless music, quite often you imagine the great Sahelian bands with balafon or kora, hand drums, and guitars behind those gravelly complaining vocals. I can't find out much about Bolon Star other than the fact they are Malian. Ernie Keita is the guitarist, Modibo the drummer. From their facebook page I can see their singer Yaya Soumagno learned from Lobi Traore. The band was formed by childhood friends around 2012 in Bamako, and they've put their music on soundcloud. They describe their music as Malian blues, Afro-pop and reggae. The reggae is credible (on "Babwa -- the Bobo" which has a nice breakdown), but the "blues" component really shines. Further web explorations suggest they are a backing band for some of the great Malian praise singers. This album was released in 2012 at the depth of the civil war, but nevertheless the band seems to be thriving and continuing to perform for local audiences. You can hear them and buy this fine set from iTunes or your preferred venue.

2017 (Clermont Music CLE019CD)

This is the second internationally released album by Malian singer Leila Walet Gobi. She has a youthful verve and a sharp delivery. A stand-out at the Festival in the Desert in 2013, she toured West Africa and then North America and signed to the Clermont label that represents Khaira Arby, Mamadou Kelly & other great talents. The tracks were laid down in the capital, Bamako, but, given the occasional power-outages and lack of recording technology, she decided to just cut a clean album and add effects in post. She is backed by guitar, bass and percussion. Then the looped beats & delayed echo to her keening vocals were added on the coasts of North America, in New York and Los Angeles. This of course changes the overall aspect of the sound, and propels it to the dancefloor. I wonder if they had a click track, since the beats which are so integral to the sound, are in synch with the bass and calabash. Ultimately a whole album of dance tracks is hard to take, I for one would have enjoyed hearing her without the relentless disco bomp on every track. But then I am older than you and no longer have the stamina to dance the night away. However there's a break after half an hour when a reggae groove steps up for "Akan nana," and the next track "Eh Khanzam" is irresistible with its chorus of (seemingly) "Num num num."

MOGOYA (Noformat NOF36)

Oumou is not yet 50 but has already made her mark as one of the grand divas of Malian music. The daughter of Peul famers from Wassoulou, she sold water on the streets of Bamako as a small child, but soon attracted attention for her singing voice. She got gigs as a praise singer at weddings and baptisms and this led to a career with the National Ensemble of Mali and then a European tour with the group Djoliba. World Circuit launched her international career with Ko Sira in 1993 and Worotan in 1996. The anthology Women of Mali: the Wassoulou Sound also boosted her career as the hypnotic rhythms of her homeland captivated the Western audience. Her lyrics take a frank critical look at customs like polygamy and excision; on the new album she sings about suicide on the moody single "Yere faga," which features the driving drums of Tony Allen. A reggae feel permeates "Kounkoun," yet overall there is a French sheen to the production, reminiscent of the recent efforts of Rokia Traoré who has emerged as the strong young voice of Mali. But Oumou reasserts her vocals chops and adds her own secret weapon in the form of Guimba Kouyaté, a young Malian guitarist who rips out some extraordinary riffs. Her backing band is an electronic group called Trio A.L.B.E.R.T. It may be a cliché but this is an album rooted in tradition with a strong progressive thrust into the future.

POLITIKI (Clermont Music CLE016)

Mamadou Kelly's third album Politiki shows him maturing into one of the great exponents of Malian blues. Backed by BanKaiNa, accomplished veterans of the Malian music scene (they've backed Ali Farka Toure and Alkibar), years of touring have sharpened their delivery to a fine edge. Without clutter you can hear Kelly's voice, a keening steel guitar and a djourkel, which is a mandolin-like instrument, atop bass, calabash and other percussion. It's a strongly assured sound, reminiscent of Ali Farka or Afel Bocoum but still very contemporary. The steel guitar is played by Cindy Cashdollar, a mistress of the dobro; the first woman inducted into the Texas Steel Guitar Hall of Fame, she has brightened up scores of albums, for Rod Stewart, Albert Lee, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and many others. The djourkel is a "monochord" instrument, which I presume means it has open tuning. Percussionist Susie Ibarra has been performing in jazz, experimental avant-garde and world music ensembles in her less high-profile career. But John Zorn and Derek Bailey collaborations vouch for her credentials. Another guitar is added by Dan Littleton (ex-punk rocker) & his sidekick, bassist Jake Silver, so the line-up is four Malians and four Americans. Adding American blues, rock and folk musicians to Malian ensembles has been done before but this outing is a brilliant success.


I am very greedy when it comes to classic Malian, Senegalese and Guinean music of their golden era, which spans post-Independence in 1960 through the 80s. As much as I discover, there's always more, and I am grateful to people like Graeme Counsel, Florent Mazzoleni, Adamantios Kafetzis of Teranga Beat, not to mention Stern's, Kanaga System, Dakar Sound and all the independent labels who find this music and restore it for us. This latest reissue from Mr Bongo is simply stunning. Looking at the tracklist you might see "Mandjou" by Les Ambassadeurs, and tracks from Rail Band and Super Djata and think to yourself, I probably have these. But chances are you don't have more than two or three of these tracks, not because they are obscurities, but because they are super-rare gems. I know, you are saying, But I have the 6-disc Rail Band set from Sterns (STCD3033-34, 39-40, 43-44), but you still don't have "Mouodilo" (a solid funk track, it came out on 45 from HMV in Nigeria!), and you might have "Fatema" by Ambassadeurs or Sory Bamba's "Yayoroba," but that still leaves a stack of stuff you need, like the two impossibly scarce and fabulous Idrissa Soumaroro tracks with his band L'Eclipse de l'I.J.A., the overlooked but far from slack Tentemba Jazz, and the Super Djata tracks which have never been reissued to my knowledge (They don't even show up on Idrissa Soumaroro is less well-known than other alumni of Les Ambassadeurs du Motel, and there are two cuts from his solo venture (Ampsa, 1978) presented here, bracketing the whole package: they are in a steaming R&B vein with great organ, congas, funk & rock guitar: a nice change from Afrobeat. "Fama Allah" made me think of "You keep me hanging on" as covered by Vanilla Fudge. His band L'Eclipse consisted of some of his blind students from L'Institut des Jeunes Aveugles in Bamako, including Amadou (on guitar) and Mariam (on vocals) who later had a successful breakout career in Europe and America. Back then, the European and American influences were grafted onto traditional melodies and lyrics, though occasionally some broke from tradition, like Sory Bamba whose hit "Ya Yoroba" celebrated women with large breasts. With his swirling electric organ, his group, Kanaga de Mopti, were compared to Pink Floyd. Super Djata had a wider repertoire, stylistically, than the other bands and also came to their peak powers during the 80s when the other big name bands -- Les Ambassadeurs and Rail Band -- were dropping off in popularity. In addition to Rail Band's Djelimady Tounkara and Super Biton's Mama Sissoko, Super Djata's Zani Diabaté is one of the great African guitarists. Compared to Magic Sam, Freddie King and even Hendrix, he was also a renowned percussionist and dancer. The booklet shows the covers of five Super Djata LPs that I have never seen, nor heard of before. The three tracks here stand up to the best of Ambassadeurs and the other class acts present. The whole album shows many facets of some musicians as they appeared in different configurations. The producers refer to one of "the heaviest Afro Funk cuts, 'Moko Jolo' of Rail Band" (which is on their 1973 "blue" album, Serie Folk-Rail 1, but not included here). I guess they are leaving some stuff on the side for a further smorgasbord. It's a great jam, but currently only available on a 2011 Japanese import replica CD of the original album which has three other cuts which are not in print. But there's enough here to satisfy you and broaden your collection of fabulous classic Malian music.


This is not the famous all-policewoman band from Guinea called Les Amazones, but a supergroup spearheaded by disco diva Angelique Kidjo with some stellar other women singers in the line-up including Mariam Doumbia, of Amadou and Mariam, and one of Mali's finest singers Kandia Kouyaté (replacing Oumou Sangaré who dropped out). The backing band are in the disco-funk vein and despite the traditional instruments it's more of a European club groove. There's distorted thumb piano, hand percussion mixing with syn-drums, in fact a bit too much going on, including backward-sounding snarly guitar, jazzy vibraphone and home-made pots-n-pans behind the djembe. It makes me think of one of those all-star jams where all the bands get on stage for a big finale to sing "Get up, Stand up for your rights" or "We are the world." Not to say it's a mess, it's just a bit cluttered. Imagine Ethio Jazz and Mbongwana Star with Bootsy and Mad Professor. Now think of a bunch of people who want to be those people all playing simultaneously. They have an abundance of singers: the hard part was finding women instrumentalists, but they recruited Mouneïssa Tandina, a drummer, and Mariam Koné, a guitarist. Like the majority of the band they are Malian. Kidjo comes from Benin, and young singer Nneka is Nigerian: countries where polygamy is common. Most African countries are sexually backward -- girls are subject to genital mutilation for no reason other than evil patriarchal demands, domestic abuse is widespread and rape is a common weapon in war (& even god help us, by UN peacekeepers). The new Amazones' aim is to be a big hit at festivals and raise awareness for the burgeoning feminist movement in Africa. So it's worthy of our support.

WALI (Studio Nomade SNP2014-SD-01/1)

This is a 2014 recording which I've just discovered. It's one of those breathtaking discs which hits the ground at full speed and, if you are not ready, can knock you back. Sory plies the balafon, as well as djembe and back-up singing; "Petit Adama" Diarra plays guitar on three cuts and ngoni on another; Mariam "Baty" Kante is the main singer, with Fanta Camara leading on 4 tracks and singing back-up on the others; "Dartagnan" plays drumkit. There's kora, bass, electric guitar and then in the background some Frenchmen and Slovenians on keyboard, bass, horns and the like. The songs are all traditional, 3 to 5 minutes long, and packed with the classic sounds we love from Mali: the sweet choruses, plangent strings and above all the busy balafon bustling about recklessly and occasionally hitting the one with the kick drum or bass guitar to reassure us they are on the same page. I say traditional, but we also take into account the fact that montuno-style salsa piano has been adopted into the repertoire of West African music for at least half a century now. Carefully planned, right down to the packaging, well arranged and recorded: this is a real find.

DJAMA DJIGUI (Ben BD Production Interntional)

He's called King of the Djely Ngoni and with a name like Jimi you can expect some instrumental pyrotechnics on here. There' a guest artist (presumably the singer) named Fea. Other than that I have no info on this release except a 2016 date. There's typical Malian instrumentation: sokou (horsehair fiddle) played, I assume, by the great Zoumana Tereta, slapped calabash and Sissoko ripping out the riffs on his small ax. The lead cut, "Nama" winds up and up and in the last minute an electric guitar on fuzztone setting starts blazing to push it that bit further into the eaves. There are two talking drums dueling on the second cut (I believe Djimé is on one of them) and the fuzztone guitar returns on "Massani Cissé" but it's clear the Ngoni is the lead instrument. On "Badjourou" he brings in kora, could it be Ballaké Sissoko? I didn't get any info with this but a web search reveals Djimé is the younger brother of Baba Sissoko, a famous tamani drummer. The drum solos make a nice counterpoint to the instrumental work as well as the variations between the traditional instruments showcased here.

JAMAL (Studio Mali Recordings)

Alkibar Junior sounds comforting to me as a member of the drinking classes, and their music has the familiar strains of Niafunké which is the funky roots music of Timbuktu, Mali. There's that lovely dissonant horsehair fiddle on here in counterpoint to the crisp acoustic guitar, which is played by Diadié Bocoum, younger brother of Afel Bocoum. Singer Sekou Touré was a member of Ali Farka Touré's entourage. When the jihadis invaded their land in 2012 many people fled but the band members remained at home, practicing secretly in their bedrooms while outwardly looking like collaborators: growing their beards and tending their rice paddies. Like other recent traditional Malian music, post-Ali Farka, there are strong elements of rock and blues, especially when trap drums kick in. Jamal is a collection of praise songs for the various individuals who kept the community together during the past few years of hardship. To reinforce their ranks the band brought in the other members of Ali Farka Touré's band for support and a strong guest list, including Afel Bocoum (who produced), Mamadou Kelly, Hamma Sankaré, and Yoro Cissé; Leila Gobi and Ami Wassidje come in on backing vocals (names that will be familiar from the best albums issued recently by Akwaaba, Clermont, and so on), plus the great Zoumana Tereta who has played sokou (horsehair fiddle) on Bassekou Kouyaté's albums, also appears. I don't think it is hype to say this is destined to become a Malian classic.


Ali Farka Touré named his son, Vieux, or "Old man," which seems a strange name for a lad and one assumes that he will grow into it. Vieux Kanté, however, never got to be a respected elder, dying unexpectedly aged 31 in 2005. He had spent a decade mastering the kamalé ngoni and when he became proficient on it, he decided to expand it by adding more strings. After adding two he added a few more until he had 12 strings on his instrument making it more like a kora. He also worked on his technique, bending notes like a blues guitarist, popping the strings like Larry Graham and damping the strings to create bell-like tones. He could even make them squeak like a cuica! He was well-known in the club scene in Bamako with a regular hotel gig that usually ran into the wee hours, but never got to taste the rewards of international recognition that so many of his countrymen achieve when they are discovered and their music promoted outside Mali. Now posthumous recognition should be his with a fine set of original traditional music performed with a small group comprising electric bass, a djembe drummer and a vocalist, Kabadjan Diakité from the Orch National de Guinée and Super Diata Band of Zani Diabaté, who sings on three tracks. Kanté was born blind and spent a lot of his childhood sitting home with the radio on. He discovered his brothers had a kamalé ngoni (or young man's harp) in their room and soon took to recreating what he heard on the radio on this instrument. I did not know (prior to reading Banning Eyre's liner notes) that this instrument was invented in the 1960s as a smaller version of the hunter's harp, the donson ngoni. As Eyre says, "No Wassoulou music album offers such a variety of rhythms and textures as we hear here." And it is to Eyre's persistence and Stern's action that we can now appreciate this brief gem by a master of Malian music, one who created an instrument to match the music in his head.

DJELY BLUES (Label bleu)

Djelimady is now the elder statesman of Malian music. He has effectively taken up the mantle of Ali Farka Touré and has released a brilliant new solo album, with much less fanfare than surrounded the Donkeyman's later efforts. In the last century Djelimady was the leader of the Super Rail Band, one the legendary Malian bands which launched many stars to international prominence. But of course it was the singers Mory Kanté and Salif Keita everyone noticed, rather than the phenomenal guitarist, who himself was the son of griot praise singers. The Rail Band was founded by saxophonist Tidiani Koné in 1970, but the modest guitarist soon assumed authority. His style was a mix of George Benson and Chuck Berry as the band switched from traditional Mandingue melodies to more Western-oriented rock tunes. Students of guitar will also note elements of Bill Frissell and even the smooth Hank B. Marvin in his playing. But he also picked up a triplet run from his childhood study of the n'goni and adapted it to guitar. In 2001 he released his first solo album Sigui, which won the BBC World Music Award the next year. Solon Kôno followed in 2005. Now after a decade he has brought forth another solid instrumental set with his Les Paul guitar to the fore, but he has not left the acoustic sound behind. He is backed by acoustic guitar and light percussion: Sayon Camara plays rhythm and Yacouba Sissoko is on calabash. There's also Samba Kanté on electric bass. The "Blues" of the title is evident in his diminished chord runs. But there's also the Afro-Cuban element, which came from his youth but then was revived with his involvement with Eliades Ochoa and the Afrocubism project in 2010. And he told me he was inspired by flamenco as a young man: you can tell from the trills and flourishes that augment his playing. Here there's a remake of "Mansa," which was the title track of the Super Rail Band album recorded in 1995. Two or three saxes, two trumpets and three vocalists swelled that opus, not to mention Jean-Philippe Rykiel who snuck in on "claviers" like a drop of bleach in the colored wash. Now it's stripped to essentials. Here Djelimady performs "Sansenesougouro" from the new album.

KOKUMA (Membran)

Kouyaté, Coulibaly, Bah, Sissoko, the names are familiar, even the sound is familiar. Once again I am indebted to muzikifan's Washington DC correspondent for turning me on to a great new release. If you like traditional Malian music, and I know you do, then this will fit your idea of a great time. The musicians used to be Ngoni Ba, the backing band of Bassekou Kouyaté. In 2012 they parted ways with their cousin/uncle/brother and got caught up recording with Brian Eno and Damon Albarn's African Express. Back in Bamako the nine-piece unit has a regularly Saturday night stand at the Maya Hotel, playing their own version of traditional music. There's three or four ngonis (lead, regular, medium bass, and bass ngonis), as you'd expect, shaken clickety percussion -- the beads and gourd thing -- a thumping good calabash as bass beat, two women vocalists and a vibrant groove. Check out how powerful their traditional sound is on this YouTube teaser of a living room rehearsal (crappy camerawork but a real sense of their musical unity). And count the ngonis while you are watching!

WAATI SERA (Studio Mali digital release)

No surprises here! Indeed, it's a smoking hot new album from where else but Mali by an unknown young guitarist. Actually he is not totally unknown, but I missed his 2010 album Kassa (Makasound) and his breakout performance on the "Vegetable in the Dessert" compilation because I was too busy yelling at Robert Plant, Justin Adams and Blackfire to get off the stage. Yalomba is in the Bombino camp, open-ended jamming in the key of G (it sounds like) with a deep thudding backing band featuring trap drums and electric bass alongside a sampling of traditional instruments, but the overall sound is rock n roll. He is aiming for danceable Afro-Pop. Yaloma, a Bambara, is also a virtuoso player of n'goni and n'dan, relatives of the guitar, and his passionate performance guarantees him a spot in any line-up of Malian stars. He sings well in five languages as he also balances ngoni with electric and acoustic guitar, congas with xylophone and electronic beats. He believes, since the populace of Mali is largely illiterate, it is up to musicians to provide information and education and protect cultural traditions and values. The title track is reggae but don't let that discourage you. He is backed by Groupe Bwanzan on "Mali Za" one of the standout tracks but otherwise gives us a superb set of blazing guitar and impassioned vocals.


The new Kandia Kouyaté album went straight to the top of Stern's new release charts, which is a sign that there is continued, even growing interest in Malian traditional music. Ever since Oumou Sangaré stormed into our consciousness in 1990 we have seen a steady flow of fine female praise-singers, from Nahawa Doumbia to Dienaba Diakité, to Sabré Soumano, Sali Sidibe, Coumba Sidibe, and that's only a few of the myriad performers. A lot of attention went into this fine production: there's a variety of instruments and styles behind Kouyaté. When still only 20 she gave a private recital that circulated on cassette causing her reputation to precede her, followed by gifts of cash, gold and even new cars -- one enthusiast put a private jet at her disposal. I am assuming that her patrons get more than a thrill from hearing her voice, maybe they attach some spiritual significance to getting a namecheck in her song. Despite touring to Europe and the USA she was still not well known because she refused to record and was only known to insiders via bootleg cassettes of her live performances. Things changed when she was invited to sing on Sekouba "Bambino" Diabaté's 1997 album Kassa (Stern's). However, after a few early recordings for Ibrahim Sylla, released by Stern's, she suffered a stroke. She did not sing or even speak for seven years, but, at the end of his life, Sylla persuaded her to return to the studio in 2011 and create this album which took four years to come to fruition. The backing is mostly acoustic, with balafon, kora and guitars. Her song about ill-health, "Sadjouhoulé," can be seen here.