mali5

MUSIC OF MALI, part 5

OUMAR
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.

MASSA DEMBELE
ALUMAYE (Izniz)

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.

LAS MARAVILLAS DE MALI
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.

ADAMA BARRY
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.

HAMA SANKARE
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.

BASSEKOU KOUYATE & NGONI BA
MIRI (Out Here Records OH32)

Each new release from Bassekou Kouyate is eagerly awaited, and his fifth album will be 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.

LIVIO
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.

SAMBA TOURE
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.

ZOUMANA TERETA
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.

INVISIBLE SYSTEM
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.

BKO
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
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.

LEILA GOBI
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."

OUMOU SANGARE
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.

MAMADOU KELLY
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.

ORIGINAL SOUND OF MALI (Mr Bongo)

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 discogs.com). 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.

LES AMAZONES D'AFRIQUE
REPUBLIQUE AMAZONE (RealWorld Records)

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.

SORY DIABATE
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.

DJIME SISSOKO
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.

ALKIBAR JUNIOR
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.

VIEUX KANTE
THE YOUNG MAN'S HARP (Stern's STCD1127)

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.

DJELIMADY TOUNKARA
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.

GAMBARI BAND
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!

ADAMA YALOMBA
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.


KANDIA KOUYATE
RENASCENCE (Stern's STCD1126)

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.