Thursday, October 28, 2004

Issa Bagayogo

"Tomorrow," schu-morrow. What, indeed, IS time, after all?
Issa Bagayogo's new album, Tassomakan (Six Degrees) raises questions of influence, as does Smile (see my previous post), though they are different questions. Bagayogo is from Mali and plays a Malian instrument called the Kamele N'goni: a six-stringed instrument with a long, thin neck and hemisherical body that the player plucks (you'll see a photo of Bagayogo playing this instrument at the link). Bagayogo's first album, Sya, is wondrous: performed almost entirely on indigenous instruments and firmly rooted in Malian song structures (full disclosure: what little I know of this is based on comparison's to Ali Farka Toure's recent back-to-his-roots album, Niafunke), but incorporating dance and dub production techniques so seamlessly that you'd swear that those techniques also originated in Mali. It is light and melodic; yet, due, I think, to the fact that one plucks the kamele n'goni, it's also very percussive-sounding and thus has a will-not-be-stopped groove that seems at once exotic and centuries-old and hip and now. (Another full disclosure: your correspondent, he is sorry to say, is none of these.) Bagayogo's second album, Timbuktu, is very similar to Sya in sound. A review in LA Weekly calls his music "a hypnotic soundtrack for the lounge at the Sahara's edge," and that seems a fit characterization of the first two albums.
Tassomakan, though, seems to have moved further away from the Sahara. It retains the Malian instruments, but it also introduces such instruments as organs and electric guitars (the latter were present in Sya, but they weren't predominant) and even experiments with Western pop song forms. The result is an album that, apart from Bagayogo's lyrics in his native language, sounds more "Western" than the first two albums do. I think that is the chief reason why this album doesn't appeal as strongly to me. But why this more "Western"-sounding album should have less appeal for me is something I'm not sure of. "Authenticity" isn't the issue: Bagayogo's music certainly sounds "African" to (these) Western ears, but what about a Malian's ears? And in any case, Bagayogo deliberately seeks to marry African instruments and song structures with Western technological flourishes and, in this new album, instruments. What is less to my liking is that in Tassomakan those seams between Malian and Western musics are more audible, whereas in Sya and Timbuktu they are, to my ear, all but inaudible. And my tastes in the arts in general seem to tend toward those pieces that are stylistically seamless with reference to their borrowings.
In thinking over the Spivak I've been reading (see my Current Reading list on the other side of the page), there may be embedded here something of her preference for what she terms the "native informant" over what other postcolonial theorists (such as Bhabha) call the sociocultural phenomenon of "hybridity." To be sure, I knew when buying Sya and taping Timbuktu that I wasn't buying field recordings of musicians in the bush. But before I pursue a discussion of Spivak here, I'd be wise to make sure I understand the distinction she's making.

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