With no preamble, Lobi launches into another scorching set of electric blues from Mali. He has bass and drums backing him, but also a well-slapped djembe and balafon continuo on half the cuts. This album was recorded live in two sessions in February 2007 and February 2008. Throughout he demonstrates the drive and virtuosity that propelled him to the top of my charts with his 2006 release on Honest Jons. This album surpasses even that for intensity and sheer power: he indeed cooks a spoonful. Moribo Kouyate is still with him on balafon; I doubt anyone else could keep up. Unfortunately Lobi died last year -- not even fifty years old. Born in a village outside Segou on the banks of the Niger in 1961 he took to the Bambara culture readily as both parents sang in a secret society known as "Komo." (Komo is one of the three main power societies in Bamana culture: the other two are Kono and Nama. The Bamana have their own system of writing and unique metaphysical and cosmological concepts.) At 16 Lobi moved to the big city and played guitar with a folkloric troupe for three years before joining the Djata Band of Zani Diabaté. After tours of France and Ivory Coast, Lobi decided to go solo. He returned to the Bozo Bar in Bamako and grouped traditional musicians around his electrified lead guitar & power-rock trio. It's unusual to have such raucous guitar in this context but it works well. He recorded half a dozen albums with this combo. He plays long trancelike solos that remind me of ragas while the continuo adds a solid underpinning. This, his latest from Kanaga System Krush, is pure joy. Fans of Cream and Velvet Underground will also be delighted by it. The Bamana blacksmiths are members of the Komo cult because of their ability to transform materials through the medium of fire. Lobi's musical tricks are both incendiary and transformative.

TIENTALAW (Stern's STCD1113)

I just wrote this up for Songlines magazine, giving it five stars, so I will reiterate briefly what I said there: it's a top notch album and sadly, the last recordings of this brilliant West African guitarist. Zani rode to international fame with the Super Djata band in that moment when African music had a big Western audience and labels like Mango willing to promote them with tours and other support. True, there is still a huge festival circuit in Europe every summer, but ever since the Bush era the US State Department has done its best to keep foreign acts from touring the USA. Occasionally bands play New York's summer stage or venture as far as Washington DC but I don't hear of any acts coming out West, though I recall the days when Sunny Ade, Nusrat, or Sly 'n' Robbie packed the Greek Theatre in Berkeley. Nevertheless Zani wowed the European audiences, as attested by this Youtube video. Zani started out as a teenager playing balafon & kora and dancing with the National Ballet du Mali. From that troupe he met fellows who became his lifelong companions in a group that evolved into one of the first non-state-sponsored bands in Mali, the Djata Band. These were vocalists Alou Fané and Fani Sangaré who also played kamalen ngoni and djembé. They took Bamako by storm with their fusing of traditional music (from all over Mali) with Zani's electric guitar. It was the flash of Zani's guitar that recalled Freddy King and T-Bone Walker which widened their appeal to Western audiences. When Zani's originally partners Fané and Sangaré died, he inducted their sons, and his own son, into the line-up and that is the outfit playing here, known as Les Héritiers, or the Inheritors. I don't know how they will fare without Zani, but here he is in control, with a great set of Malian music, full of pulsing bass, congas and drums, balafon, djembe, ngonis, & other traditional instruments weaving in and out, plus his acid-tone guitar. The sequencing is great because the hottest songs are saved for the end, like a live show, so by the time you get to "Ambou wele (You've gotta dance)" you really have to dance, and then "Soubagaya," which trades riffs between guitars and sax, lifts the roof. A great exit for Zani (if only Sir Mick or Sir Paul had departed when they were still hot). God speed, maestro.

VOLUME ONE 1970-79 (Thrill Jockey)

About 6 months ago roving reporter Zim sent me a link to an African LP on EBay by Mystère Jazz de Tombouctou that had sold for seriously funny money ($760). Then a rare Kanaga de Mopti album came up -- I had neither seen nor heard of these albums before -- but once the first copy of Kanaga passed the $100 mark, the price escalated until one sold for $453; then several more appeared and the price dropped accordingly. But I was curious enough to track them down. The Kanaga de Mopti album, though a bit muddy, had some great work by trumpeter and singer/songwriter Sorry Bamba. Bamba started out in 1960 in a youth band in Bamako called Bani Jazz, who released a single in 1965. Then he returned to his home town Mopti and formed the Orchestre Regional de Mopti in 1969, with whom he won the top prize at the musical contest thrice. Some of that music appears here. From the 1970 disc that appeared on Barenreiter-Musikafon comes "Boro" & "Sekou Amadou." (As I have said before someone would do the world a great service by reissuing all the BM 30L series on CD.) The regional band evolved into Kanaga de Mopti around 1976. Bamba released his greatest work, an LP on the Bolibana label called Le Tonnère Dogon in 1987 (not here as this disc focuses on the 70s; perhaps it will be on volume two). This disc kicks off with "Yayorobo" which was a hit but which he later described as "frivolous." That and the drinking song "Porry" come from an album on Songhoi Records from 1977 called Sorry Bamba du Mali. The elegant, drawn-out "Gambari" & "Sare mabo" from that rare Kanaga de Mopti album that broke the bank on EBay are here along with eight other tracks that have been restored to wonderful sonic fidelity. Mory Kanté plays guitar, but I don't think it's the same Mory Kanté who went on to fame in Paris in the 80s. Digging into the Dogon mask dances for inspiration and playing the fula flute against more sophisticated modern instruments, Bamba creates a real fusion between tradition and innovation. There are several long, moody tracks. "Sékou Amadou," in minor keys, has a sustained litany of what sound like Islamic plaints and a bass and guitar in contest arguing over the right key before the horns and a flute come in to restore balance. This has fake applause grafted on. Nevertheless this is pure joy: not only good value (compared to EBay) but a long, thoroughly satisfying disc.


Here's another opportunity for me to rave about an old fave. I didn't buy this new issue because I already have it, but Papa Freddy told me that Kindred Spirits in the Netherlands has reissued a 1977 album from this great band. Unlike the state orchestras that used the traditional music of griots as their compositional basis, Super Biton were new and original in their work and incorporated the Afro-Cuban beat into their Bambara rhythms. Founded by trumpeter Amadou Ba in 1952, they became one of the state-run bands after independence. They are based in Ségou, capital of the ancient Bambara kingdom. The great (i.e. remarkable, talented, unique, distinctive) Mama Sissoko quit Orchestre Regional de Kayes to join them on guitar and became band leader (You will gather how much I revere Mama Sissoko when he made my African Top 50 and Ali Farka didn't! Also Super Biton's Afro-Jazz du Mali CD is in there). They won the youth biennial competition twice, in 1974 and 1976, and the 19-member band had a repertoire of over 200 songs! The following year they recorded two albums at the Radio Mali studios with Boubacar Traoré at the mixing board. Those albums were reissued in Europe on the Mali Stars label from Syllart and this is a replica of one of them. The full horn section complements the multiple vocalists. There's organ and western trap drums, as well as hand-beaten ones and a xylophone. When Mama Sissoko is not playing lead he plays a pizzicato riff that is like two dueling mi-solo guitars at the same time. The highlight is "Taasi doni" but all six tracks are varied and exceptional.

JAMA KO (Out Here Records OH021CD)

This is only Bassekou Kouyate's third release but he further establishes himself as the foremost performer on the ngoni, the small Malian lute. The title, "Jama ko," means a big gathering of people and his message is universal peace, but it also signals his approach to music: bring in lots of guests, to test them and his band (which consists of four ngonis plus percussion). The album was recorded in harsh circumstances: on their first day in the studio, in March 2012, the government was overthrown and the army took over. There were power cuts, fuel shortages, a curfew imposed, and the rebels began imposing Sharia law in the north of the country. Simply making music was a form of protest and so Kouyate and his team cranked it up. Ngoni Ba has changed and now, in addition to his two sons, includes a young ace on the ngoni named Abou Sissoko. The guests include vocalists Kasse Mady Diabaté and Zoumana Tereta who have sung with him before. Khaira Arby and good ol' Taj Mahal each show up for one jam, the latter does his credible imitation of Howlin Wolf (or is that his Captain Beefheart impression?). The Barr Brothers (unknown to me but that doesn't mean you've never heard of them) add drums and guitar and there are other rock elements overdubbed, none of them seriously detracting from the full-throttle thrust of the music. In fact the variety gives it a wider appeal: some folk might not sit still for an hour of traditional ngoni music, but when drums, rock guitar, and different singers turn up it's like a set from a very tuned-in deejay. If anything the guitarists recall the smoking jams of Lobi Traore who also performed with Ngoni Ba on their debut Segu Blue album.


This album is a cornerstone of any serious Mali collection. If you don't have it, Stern's has re-issued this 1988 compilation digitally. In the late 60s and early 1970s the state of Mali held annual competitions to find the best groups and from these events the legendary bands emerged. Though many have rather pedestrian names, like the Regional Orchestra of Kayes, the Regional Orchestra of Sikasso, the Regional Orchestra of Segou, or the Regional Orchestra of Mopti, the talent is unmistakable. There are two tracks from the National "A", and the second one, "Duga," will blow your mind. The whole thing is soulful, moody and smoulders till the inevitable fireworks. I have said it before, but I will say it again: Bärenreiter in Germany issued a whole series of these annual youth band competitions which are gold (This Stern's compilation was drawn from them). Four have been reissued on limited edition vinyl by Mississippi Records, but someone needs to take charge and put the whole set out on CD. (Bärenreiter is a huge corporation so, like EMI, are unaware of the gold in their vaults, or think a few thousand copies are so negligible as to be not worth pursuing). According to Stern's owner, at the moment the albums that came out on the Mali Kunkun label as well as the Bärenreiter recordings are leased to Sylla (whose CDs are distributed by Stern's) in an agreement with the now-deposed president of Mali, Amadou Toure. While this deal could be rescinded by a new government, the master tapes are still locked up somewhere in Germany. So the quest goes on!


I was thinking the great fountain of inspiration from the Sahara sands was starting to dry up, maybe with the arrival of Al Qaeda in Africa in their dunes. (The sudden enthronement of Tinariwen as the hottest thing to come out of Africa also coincided with them becoming a watered-down version of their former selves. Now there are dozens of these Saharan jam bands, it seems, whanging away like the beturbaned Dead.) But my fears were groundless and here we have the latest in a glittering galaxy of musical statements that are timeless: Modern yet grounded in an antiquity that predates Noah. (Depending on who you are listening to, the great flood was not that long ago, but something has always bugged me: If the water reached to the tops of the mountains -- say 6000 feet -- where did it all go when the "waters receded"? Did God pull a plug at the bottom of the ocean?)

Ngoni Ba is a group of multiple ngoni players, including Harouna Samake on kamale ngoni and Bassekou himself on the bass instrument. Amy Sacko, the vocalist, is married to leader Bassekou Kouyate. Apart from the Western pop sheen brought by Taj Mahal, Clapton and others, Kouyate has also frequently dueted with Toumani Diabaté the celebrated kora player, and he appears here again. But its the ngoni that takes centre stage. Kouyate had never seen a banjo, the modern descendant of the ngoni, until he attended a banjo pickers convention in Tennessee and was urged on stage. Now Bela Fleck is touring with the group to bring that dueling banjo intensity to the set. Kouyate has played with Toumani Diabaté in an instrumental trio, in the Symmetric Orchestra & with Ali Farka Toure. Ali's son Vieux guests here, as do griot vocalist Kasse Mady Diabaté, plus there's a stellar spike fiddle player Zoumana Tereta playing his soku, which is a horse-hair fiddle.


I thought Lobi Traoré was one of the older generation of Malian acoustic guitarists starting to mellow, but he hits the ground electrified and running in this outing and doesn't stop till you are exhausted. True, he has to contend with Mama Sissoko, Sekou "Bembeya" Diabaté and Djelimadi Tounkara to be fastest guitar in the West, but he leaves no doubt he is a contender. The liner notes of this handsome package are succinct: "Recorded October 2002, outdoors in Bamako City. Continuous takes, no overdubbing." That says it all. There's Lobi on electric guitar and vocals, two bass players (I guess the first one wore out), balafon, traps and djembe. It is a smoker. I am trying to think of other Malian bands that have a power trio line up like this, mixing in traditional instruments with Western rock and blues guitar. You can hear the balafon clearly and it is not just hammering a continuo, Modibo Kouyaté solos like a dervish and takes the lead while Lobi chords and does some wild experimenting. In fact he is great at holding down some trance-inducing riff to let the balafon solo and then break into an inspired lead, equal parts Jeff Beck, Ali Farka, Sonny Boy Williamson, and sorcery. Meanwhile the djembe player, Boubacar Sissoko, is no slouch. That doesn't leave much for the drummer who works his foot pedals keeping up a hissing high-hat and bass drum bomp to ground the rhythm while Lobi takes flight. IJ has already accorded this "African album of the year" status. I've heard this album compared to Captain Beefheart and Buddy Guy! Hats off to Lobi.

MOUNEISSA (Label Bleu/Indigo)

From beginning to end this is a truly superb album and signals a great future for the gifted songwriter who was the "Discovery of the Year" for Radio France International in 1998 upon her debut with this album. Rokia Traoré made such a huge impact with her second album WANITA that Label Bleu/Indigo France reissued her debut album. MOUNEISSA overflows with her lovely voice, delicate songs and the unique mix of ngoni and balafon (with bass guitar and ticking percussion). The trance-like rhythms of her childhood home in Upper Volta lend themselves to her slightly mournful intensity. This album makes a nice contrast to the more urban sound of Issa Bagayogo and Mamou Sidibé that show the techno side of modern Malian music. It's hard to think of things to say about this music, though I play it frequently. It creates a mood that doesn't resolve readily into prose. I suppose I should cop an idea from the Berkeley wine merchant who, to sell his wine, provides prose poems that say a lot without really mentioning the taste of the wine. Yes, occasionally he runs down the old platitudes: "Fruity, structure a-plenty. The body is earthy, organic..." But then suddenly you read: "A taste of harsh mountain air, of a freshly bathed peasant girl who rode a donkey down that Corsican mountain trail... the fingers of the amorous... the breasts of a hearty woman bent over to milk her goat." Hmm? Well, let me just say about Rokia Traoré's album, I think of rumpled bedding in the afternoon, the dark silhouette of a slim girl, her black tangled hair the forest at night, her buttocks raised towards me as I reach under her warm belly to caress her berrylike nipples, mingle with her earthy organic aroma..."

[N.B. Disclaimer: this is not a personal reference to fantasies about Ms Traoré, nor is it intended to be a racist characterization, as one reader suggested. Just believe me, I know the party involved.]

WANITA (Indigo)

Malian music has such timelessness and staying power that from the opening notes of WANITA you know you are in for a great musical odyssey with Ms Traoré. Though it's traditional Malian music, WANITA struck me as the finest new release from Africa in 2000. It's folksy -- that is if you play it at such a low level you can't hear the lyrics you might think it was Fairport Convention! But bring it up into earshot and you start to hear the pentatonic marimba, the slap of the gourd, the sussuration of the rattles.

A handsome booklet (that is too big for the slipcase) comes with the CD, replete with color photos and translations of all the Bamanan lyrics into French. Although WANITA is only Traoré's second album, it shows a mature approach to the music. The only electric instrument is bass, otherwise her melancholy is surrounded by traditional Malian instruments: balaba (balafon), n'goni, karignan, gaïta, djembé, and female chorus. There are guest appearances from kora player Toumani Diabaté and guitarist Boubakar Traoré. The harmonies are flawless and the whole album emanates the warm dreaminess of the Sahel at dusk.

KONGO SIGUI (Indigo LBLC 2581 HM 83)

This needs no recommendation from me. Long-awaited, the return of Super Rail Band and their finest offering since the 1985 classic "New Dimension in Rail Culture" on Globestyle, this is one for the ages. Their classic sound is intact, stripped of the horns, which may or may not be a blessing, and a kora thrown in for good measure. Djelimadi Tounkara rules the whole thing like the king he is. We have the West African triumvirate back in control now: Baobab, Bembeya and Rail Band, what joy!! Perhaps best known as the spawning ground of Mory Kanté and Salif Keita, the Rail Band, nonetheless should be acclaimed for its guitarist, Djelimadi Tounkara. Though their music is often described as electrified folklore it still has a folksy heart and the electric factor seems a bonus rather than something that has stripped its essence through modernization. Their musical influences span the globe, from Spain to Cuba to Congo, and they have matured with time. In fact the world has gone through more changes than the Rail Band and miraculously they sound as good as they did on their 1970s albums. We've also heard the unplugged version of the title song, "Kongo Sigui" on the recent stripped down mini-tour by Tounkara. Here you get it full force, with the pulsing bass busily filling the beats between the spare percussion, and the second guitar holding down the tune while Djelimadi gets to soar off into the heavens. Ballaké Sissoko appears on kora for a duet with Djelimady on acoustic guitar, on a traditional hunter's song. There's no djembe eruption, like you'd expect, but the big energy burst happens with the next track on which the percussionists are barely in check under the vocals. By the guitar solo, limbs are truly flying in all directions: classic Rail Band -- full steam ahead! Even the ballads have that barely contained energy as Tounkara fires off ideas and blistering runs at double tempo. Beautifully recorded, this is a magnificent album.


In Mali, West Africa, despite military coups and other endemic problems, things seem laid back and no one wonders if the trains will ever run on time. Super Rail Band de Bamako is the first recording in over a decade by the Malian band that spawned Salif Keita and Mory Kanté. Though the electric griots have departed for Paris and fame, the band still sounds fresh and soulful with their veteran sax player and guitarist doing most of the work. Long unravelling songs like a rail journey through the desert, with Islamic harmonies, superlative guitar and horns.

SARALA (Gitanes Jazz/Verve 314 528 783-2)

Legendary American pianist Hank Jones has more spark than musicians half his age. In a welcome encounter, he furthers the cause of Pan-African music by jamming with an all-star line-up of West African musicians in an album that is exciting to jazz fans as well as diehard African music traditionalists. The Mandinkas, including Ousmane Kouyaté on guitar, Lansine Kouyaté on balafon and Cheick Tidiane Seck on Hammond B3, weave their magic around some traditional griot riffs. Guests include Amina and Kanté Manfila. Flute, hand percussion, and acoustic instruments create an ambiance as the tracks mellow. Call and response vocals rise over the bubbling organ, which, although its appearance is novel, is handled deftly by Seck, the arranger, and blends well with the tone of the hardwood balafon. Absolutely one of the greatest world fusion albums ever recorded.

SYA (Cobalt left; Six Degrees in USA [below])

Issa Bagayogo's debut album SYA is rooted in the folk music of Mali but has a modern production that makes it very intriguing. It is not your usual clash of folksy authenticity slicked up with speedy drum machines, but a nice balance between roots music, played by Bagayogo on n'goni (a stringed instrument that is plucked but not fretted) accompanied by dry guitar and percussion (calabash and djembe) and, for variety, some light drum programming and synth touches. These are sparingly used and simply serve to heighten the focus on the n'goni and organic percussion. Also the fact that is very well recorded makes for a pleasurable listening experience. Credit is due to Yves Wernert, the first French producer to actually enhance the sound of African music rather than swamp it in studio dreck.

The first track is so unusual and so well done in its synthesis of traditional and modern forms that it instantly overcame my prejudice against adding studio effects onto traditional instruments. It's so catchy I played it every morning for three months. In his native Mali, Issa (a bus driver) is known as "Techno Issa," because of his facility with drum programming. In March this year he was named "Mali's Brightest New Hope" by national television and radio for the songs on this album. It showcases a whole new approach to the recording studio and opens the door to the prospect of a new type of West African dub.

TIMBUKTU ( Six Degrees Records)

The long-awaited second CD from Issa Bagayogo is called TIMBUKTU -- and it's a gem. It's even better than the first, which was my album of the year in 1999. It's a continuation of the project (as was the solo album from his backing vocalist Mamou Sidibé last year), with programmed backing tracks and samples. Now, you know I bristle at the mere mention of "le programmation terrible" but somehow Issa and his trusty French boy Yves Wernert keep the arrangements spare so we hear Issa's voice and kamale ngoni, as well as the acoustic guitar and percussion. There's a gentle dub-like quality to the vocals and the acoustic guitar and ngoni weaving in and out of each other create a magical suspension of time into which we inevitably fall in wakeful dreaming. I taped an advance copy of the CD from a friend's copy, and took it to LA where I spent four days driving around with Issa inuring me from the madness on the roads. It worked, but I left the tape in the rental car!


Mama Sissoko is a West African guitarist/singer/composer whose time has come. It has been three years since his last album AMOURS-JARABI (Melodie); before that he only put out two cassettes in the nineties, but he has been maturing as a composer and performer. Born in 1949, he studied guitar beginning at age 11 when he idolised Boubakar Traoré, the classic Malian bluesman. Young Mamadou persuaded the mayor of his town to buy him an electric guitar and, while still in school, joined up with the National Orchestra "A" of Bamako, Mali. At 24 he was fronting the mythic Super Biton de Segou as singer and lead guitarist. The Super Biton won the Biennial Festival for Youth Orchestras so many times they were elevated to a National Orchestra (which meant state support) and banned from competing. At the height of their powers, in 1986, they toured Europe and recorded the great album AFRO JAZZ DU MALI (Bolibana). Sissoko struck out on his own, staying in Paris and forming another band. They opened for B.B. King. He collaborated with a Brazilian singer on his first solo album but has returned to a solid Malian line-up for this brilliant offering, SOLEIL DE MINUIT.

The Mandingo current is strengthened when Toumani Diakité joins the ensemble on donzo n'goni for a hunting song, "Boma ma." Wisely, Sissoko saves his latin track, which is also the title cut, "Soleil de minuit (Midnight sun)", till the middle of the album. By then you least expect it, and he slaps you with a classic salsa dancefloor groove. Panamanian salsero Azuquita sings, adding the latin tinge to juxtapose with Sissoko's own melancholy voice and glittering guitar work. Although latin tracks are becoming somewhat obligatory on African albums, Sissoko does it right one time and then returns to his classic sound for the rest of the set. The songs are tightly turned, with no slack, though I imagine in concert they stretch out like the old Super Biton and Rail Band albums. In fact I kept thinking I was listening to Super Biton in a really great recording, so he's lost none of the magic.

There's an amusing bit of theatre in the track "Commisariat" where a dialogue ensues between a French customs official and an innocent from Africa who insists he is just African, not from anywhere in particular: there are plenty of Frenchmen wandering around in Africa, why can't he just wander round France? The chorus asks "Where are your papers?"

On his last album, Sissoko paid his dues and delivered up homages to two of his mentors, the Super Biton band, and "Fodé" (nickname of Kasse Mady, leader of National Badema). This time it's the Kafkaesque final instrumental fragment "Hommage à K" that tips his hat to the style of the great Kélétigui and his Guinean band, the Tambourinis. This album is a rich tapestry of the musical heritages of Mali and Guinea delivered by one of the greats.

NAKAN (Cobalt)

For me finding something new on the MALI K7 label, a subsidiary of Cobalt, is an immediate rush, because after Issa Bagayogo's fabulous SYA, I have been looking for more things from this small Bamako-based outfit. Producer Yves Wernert who brought Issa's talents to such a pinnacle in SYA has done it again with NAKAN (Destiny) by Mamou Sidibé. Sidibé comes from a musical family (her father is a professional balafon player; her mother a well-known singer) and made her recording debut as a backup singer for Oumou Sangaré, one of Mali's top divas. After a decade backing Sangaré she has gone solo. The production is similar to Bagayogo's SYA, with atmospheric effects that add to the overall appeal and a drum-and-bass-in-the-bush feel to the dance tracks. Sidibé sang backup on SYA in fact, so now I'll think of these two albums as part of a set. Other common factors are the acoustic guitar of Moussa Koné and producer Wernert on bass as well as mixing console. This is truly a great album: if you dug SYA, grab this.

OUMOU (World Circuit 067)

After much hoopla we finally have a domestic (U.S.) release of the double Oumou Sangaré CD set that features her greatest hits plus a relatively new batch of tunes, culled from a Mali cassette-only release. Greatest Hits packages usually signal the artist has peaked and is about to go downhill, or they need to take time off from touring and go home and think afresh. This is different and has a great selection, familiar and new, of the Malian songbird. Disc one kicks off with her biggest hit "Ah Ndiya" which I played to death from the LIVE AT THE HEIMATKLANG compilation. Four tracks from her last release WOROTAN are interspersed with the four previously-unreleased-on-CD tracks and a remix of "Djorolen," also from WOROTAN. The new material is diverse as her influences seem to be from near and far. On one track the band sounds like Salif Keita's big pompous stadium band getting riled up, on another she sounds eerily like Sade, the lounge singer whose every song is identical. Then there's the "Riders on the Storm" feel to a rocky cut with Farfisa and wigging-out guitar. A great reminder of the power of one of Mali's greatest singers.

TASSOUMAKAN (Mali K7; in USA: Six Degrees 657036 1103-2)

When Issa Bagayogo burst on the scene in 1999 it was a fresh start for techno music. Instead of Paris synthesizers and relentless soukous drum programming, we had an intelligent approach to sound. The traditional instruments, like kamélé ngoni and flute were foregrounded. The studio atmospherics came in subtly in layers and were very much behind the singer instead of dominating the sound. This is due to Yves Wernert in Bamako who returns to produce a third album by Issa. Wernert plays bass and keyboards and does the programming but keeps it gentle and tasteful. Primarly, there's a metal scraper, rather than a TR-707 drum box set to 188 bpm. Another key to the sound is the floating female chorus in the background. At first you might think Issa hasn't progressed beyond his previous two albums, but once he gets in the swing, you are on cloud nine with those heavenly voices & wispy synth strings. The great Mama Sissoko gets room to swing on his electric guitar without turning it into a rock outing. Olivier Kaba takes over keyboards and programming on two cuts and this makes an interesting contrast to Wernert's efforts: his electric piano on "Djigui" is excellent. He is also backed by Adama Traore (another Mali K7 artist, ex-Balazan de Ségou) on Yalomba (I think this is an 8-stringed gourd resonator instrument). Tassoumakan is a solid continuation of Issa's first two albums and doesn't push towards a global sound (that screwed up Rokia Traore's last outing). Carefully crafted over the last year, the album shows strength and maturity and, above all, that Issa has retained his magic. This goes to the top of the playlist for the summer.


Another favourite rediscovery from the Sylla treasure chest is ORIGINAL KASSE MADY by National Badema. The first track, "Nama," recorded in 1983, was the last cut the band recorded with Kassé Mady, and their biggest hit. It's a haunting Malinké ballad about a ferry disaster when a group of young girls drowned on their way to an independence celebration in 1971. It has really spooky guitar and was previously reissued on LES NUITS DE BAMAKO, a great compilation CD, but here it leads off an hour of great Malian jazz from the eighties. Kassé Mady was Badema's answer to young Salif Keita and the two rivals were equal stars in the Malian musical firmament until their defection to Paris in the late 80s.


Seven great cuts by le Super Biton, one of Mali's legendary regional bands, can be found on BELLE EPOQUE. This is a reissue of the Mali Stars album from 1988 (SYL 8356) with the addition of one track from SYL 8389 which came out the following year. Named for Biton Coulibaly, founder of the Bambara Empire in Segou, the group was created by trumpeter Amadou Ba out of three pre-existing groups. In the heyday of Malian music, the 1970s, they won the Youth Biennial four times in a row, after which they were not allowed to compete further. They went on to become one of the most popular bands in Mali, and standard bearer of Bambara music which uses a pentatonic scale, rather than the more familiar western scales of Malinké music heard in the work of Salif Keita. Organ and brass often take the lead making a nice change from the more common guitar bands. This belongs, with their classic AFRO-JAZZ DE MALI (on the Bolibana label), on everyone's frequent rotation list.


WOMEN OF WASSOLOU is a well-planned introduction to the animated women who front some of the best traditional bands of West Africa's embattled desert nation, Mali. Drawn from the Syllart catalogue, this material shows the importance of women in West African music. However, of the five featured, I had only heard Oumou Sangaré before, so this compilation fills an important gap. Coumba Sidibé turns in classic praise songs backed by electrified ngoni (a distant cousin of the guitar), synthesizer and bass. The adaptation of traditional arrangements to an electric band has been handled with great restraint. Elegant flutes ornament the melodies over an insistently percussive background. The surprising Sali Sidibé performs a resounding "Djen Mali" which reminds me of Velvet Underground at their best, raw and raunchy with a manic fiddler stringing out the John Cale part.

BELLE EPOQUE 1: SOUNDIATA (Sterns 3033-34)

Kids are always being told not to play on the train tracks: but these guys can stop a diesel with their energy! Last year I was craving Rail Band and made a compilation CD of my scattered rare sides. My problem was trying to get it down to one disc, so I had to leave out all but the 15-minute version of "Soundiata." Then I had to squeeze even more when I found a couple of gems buried in the Musique du Mali compilations BANZOUMANA (Melodie 3809901-2) and SIRA MORY (Melodie 38902-2). Now, hot on the heels of the Oriki collection, comes the first double-disc from Stern's in what is projected to be three double discs or 6 hours covering the entire career of the legendary Rail Band. Instead of starting with the first Rail Band album on Barenreiter (BM 30L 2606 1970), Stern's has opted for a different approach, grouping the music by musical affinity: so in this first set we hear three very different versions of the epic "Soundiata," about the 13th-century Malinké warrior king. The album opens with the half-hour version sung by Mory Kanté and contrasts it with the fifteen-minute version sung by Sundjata's descendant Salif Keita. This "battle of the stars" idea was used on the Syllart issue of the album RAIL BAND (SYL 8357 ca 1990). The second disc features a later take by Salif and we also hear from the third, less-well-known, singer Magan Ganessy. The liner notes give a clearer account of the band, the personnel and the politics than we have known thus far. We learn of the personality clash between the shy singer Keita and the brash young balafonist Mory Kanté who would oust Keita. Makan Ganessy was hired to sing the Bambara repertoire as there was a demand for many regional styles when the band toured. For me the voices are sublime but it's the sax and guitar that put this band over the top. Sadly Tidiane Kone left in 1976 to try his luck in Benin. He is one of the greatest jazz saxmen from Africa. As high as people rank Essous, Momo Wandel and Manu Dibango, I think Koné is on another level. Coupled with the propelling beat of the rhythm section and the brilliant guitarwork of Djelimady, this band is unstoppable. There are two version of "Armée Malienne," one of which I had never heard before. There's a wide range of music on here, and if you don't know it, you will soon discover why this is hailed as the best of the Malian big bands. From the moody "Duga" to the wiry "Mali Cebalenw" (which sounds like it really coming over the tannoy in a big empty train station!) to the blisstonic "Mali tebaga mogoma," relax for the trip, let the band stretch out, and look forward to the rest of this scintillating set.


Of all African music, Malian is the only one consistently hitting on all four cylinders and you know my passion for African music of the 70s and 80s, so this can't fail. Frontman Djelimady Tounkara plays guitar like a kora, with lots of twists and turns, complex runs, and massive technique. Rail Band was fronted by Mory Kanté, who took over from Salif Keita in 1972 and was replaced in 1977 by Makan Guessy. Cheikh Tidiane Seck plays piano and organ and you can hear adumbrations of some of his later desert blues collaborations on here. Band-leader Tidiani Koné was a superb saxophonist, but left to join PolyRythmo de Cotonou and was replaced for a while by the great Dexter Johnson with his smooth jazz sound. In 1979 the band toured Ivory Coast. Abidjan was the happening scene in West Africa with high cocoa prices & many migrant workers wanting a good night out. As Paris had not yet developed for expatriate African musicians, there was a thriving recording scene in Abidjan where Sam Mangwana had made a famous stand with his African All Stars. Aboudou Lassissi recorded many of the touring bands for the Sacodis label and half the tracks here made up the AFFAIR SOCIAL LP he issued.

The other four cuts were recorded in Togo by a smaller version of the band, fronted by Djelimady and called Le Trio Manding du Mali, but despite the austerity of the name there are elements of disco and funk in the mix. Plus there's the jazz Hammond organ, now played by Ernest Honny, a Ghanaian. (And to my ears the whole band is there backing them.) The disc opens with the trio's slow smoky take on "Marigoundo," another version of "Madi guindo," heard on the Syllart compilation SIRA MORY. With Dexter Johnson, presumably, on these cuts too, it's a pan-African jazz sound, unusual for the Rail Band. On them the organ is the lead instrument, with the guitar embellishing the chords. This is an exceptional set, wonderfully restored to great fidelity, and shows the broad range of one of African's finest musical dynasties.

BELLE EPOQUE 2: MANSA (Stern's STCD3039-40)

In 2007 Stern's released the first pair of discs in the projected three volume, 6-disc set of vintage Rail Band recordings. This second pair lives up to the magic of the first and adds more gems to the collection. By now we are familiar with the saga, how the young albino singer Salif Keita, though not a griot, took Bamako by storm with this explosive band. At first he refused to perform for even though he was homeless and unable to work as a teacher because of poor eyesight, he was still a noble and it would be beneath him to perform for money. Then there was his lack of skin pigment. Rumour has it he first appeared with a towel over his head. But the band clicked. In 1971 Djelimady Tounkara joined as lead guitarist from National "A" du Mali. After three years a rivalry arose when the new balafonist, Mory Kanté began to be featured more. Kanté was a child prodigy who also had an unusual way with the kora and he would grab the mike to "accompany" Keita but drown him out. Keita left and started Les Ambassadeurs, based in the local motel as opposed to the railway hotel. With Kanté at the forefront the band became more experimental and in 1977 started playing Afrobeat (e.g., "Dugu kamaleba" included here) as well as pop and traditional Malinké and Bambara tunes which they updated. This was a revolutionary move, to incorporate different ethnicities into the band and the repertoire, and the fluid mix of musicians kept the music always fresh and exciting. A few years later Kanté also departed, becoming one of the first griots to go electric, move to Paris and score disco hits. At the same time the bandleader and saxophonist, Tidiane Koné, left for greener pastures and the leadership fell to the brilliant guitarist Djelimady Tounkara, now acknowledged to be one of the finest African guitarists of all time. But after a trip to Togo with Kanté, Djelimady was barred from performing with his old outfit by the railway authorities. He responded by starting a new band, the Trio Mandingue (documented on the Oriki disc 'Allo Bamako) that soon eclipsed the Rail Band so in the end he had to be allowed back in, with his new cohorts by his side. Another shock came when Djelimady fell in love with Congolese rumba & recorded two albums in Lomé that show the influence of Docteur Nico (The fabulous "Konowale" is included here). Devoted fans will be pleased to hear the earlier version of "Mansa" (redone as the haunting title track of their 1995 Indigo album). Mory Kanté's wonderful, dreamy "Balakononifing" is here. Some of the tracks are familiar from out of print albums that were themselves recompilations of singles, put out by Syllart in the 80s. The on-line discography by Graeme Counsel is useful in keeping this straight. These essential Stern's discs provide another broad spectrum of the group, featuring major compositions from each era of the band. The Rail Band still performs when they are in Bamako but mainly they are out touring the world. With their recent masterful anthologies of Balla et ses Balladins, Bembeya Jazz, Mbilia Bel, Tabu Ley Rochereau and others, Stern's is brilliantly filling in the history of modern African popular music. With our support and encouragement, they will continue this great work.


It doesn't get better than this folks! I have raved in these pages about Djelimady Tounkara's guitar playing. The third installment of the adventures of the Rail Band covers the decade 1973-83. I think the first Rail Band album I owned was FOLIBA which is the opening selection on here. I remember putting it on and thinking the horns were like a big diesel train, but then the ecstatically fluid guitar of Djelimady banished all such mundane images and lifted me into the sky. It's not a train at all: it's a magic carpet ride. Like the preceding two double discs in the series, this set is drawn from all eras of Rail Band, including two rare 1983 albums Rail Culture Authentique Volumes 1 & 2, which I have never seen. The double disc format, indeed the sextuple disc format if you buy all three box sets, allows the programmers to be expansive. So it's wonderful they found room for one of the greatest Rail Band expositions: the 13 minute "Wale numa lombaliya," which showed up on Mory Kante's Mali Stars album and was featured on the classic Les Nuits de Bamako disc. All three singers are featured and Magan Ganessy is no less thrilling than his famous predecessors Salif Keita and Mory Kante. We also get the wide variety of Malian styles, including Bambara and Malenke, but Djelimady was an innovator and for a while took on the rising third harmonies of Congolese pop (to the disgust of his hard core Malian audience). After missing an important gig he was fired and started a separate band, Le Trio Mandingue, with Djelimoussa Kouyate on guitar and Issa Tounkara on bass. But the Rail Band went into a steep decline, so the more successful smaller combo was reintegrated into the main outfit in 1981. After all Djelimady is the engine driver: he is the one constant throughout the history of Rail Band. This Stern's set is the foundation stone of any Malian music library.