Sunday, July 01, 2007

Music from Mali: A survey

Note: If you have trouble downloading from the RapidShare links, e-mail me and I'll be happy to send them to you via other means.

The cover of Putumayo Music's Mali. "Maninda," ("The Storyteller's Song") by Mouossa Diallo, is that album's first track.

"My music is about where I come from and our way of life and it is full of important messages for Africans. In the West perhaps this music is just entertainment and I don't expect people to understand. But I hope some might take the time to listen and learn."
--Ali Farka Toure, from the liner notes to Niafunké

Long-time readers know I'm a fan of music from Mali and have posted on two of its better-known artists, Ali Farka Toure and Issa Bagayogo, in the past. For some of you, then, some of the music and commentary to follow will be familiar. But not all of it. Since those posts, I've heard new music by those artists and learned about other musicians from Mali besides. For what it's worth, then, here are some links to and comments on a sampling of music and styles from a musically rich place, in hopes that you might hear and enjoy something you hadn't heard before.

Those curious but unwilling to risk purchasing an album by a single artist might consider trying either or both (there's no duplication of tracks between them) of the two sampler albums here, Mali and Think Global's West Africa Unwired. Each surveys the musics of the country in a slightly different fashion. The Putumayo selections come from both the deserts of the north and the Niger watershed of the south (which have musically-distinctive styles) but tend to be more musically familiar-sounding to Western ears. Diallo's song, linked to above, serves as a nice primer for Malian songs generally--specifically their tendency to establish a melodic riff or groove that repeats, with little variation, for the song's duration. And, as in the case of some of Ali Farka Toure's songs below, that groove permits the creation of vocal lines unrestrained by meter that snake and writhe, seeking not the final permitted syllable but the end of the idea's line (think of a typical line of Walt Whitman, for example). But, as you'll hear in each of the selections here, though the riffs are often irresistibly danceable, they aren't beat-heavy. Rather, they tend to have a light percussive feel to them that is often rhythmically complex and (to my ears, at least) never tiring to listen to, even when, it must be confessed, some of these artists can sound musically samey from track to track. Lovers of groove will not be disappointed by what they hear, though.

Habib Koité and his band Bamada are represented by two songs on Mali, one of which is "Kanawa" ("Please Don't Go"). Koité has a light voice, and his songs emphasize melody over groove, which accounts for their pleasant pop feel.

Meanwhile, West Africa Unwired's selections aren't limited to Mali; Guinea, Senegal, and Niger are also represented. Not only is the music on this album uniformly excellent, it has the added advantages of its proceeds benefiting Amnesty International and being affordably priced besides. Diénéba Seck is a former actress who became a musician by choice and not by birthright. Her selection here, "Niteke Nela," is an intriguing fusion of traditional, mostly acoustic instruments and a swinging, even jazzy feel to the song's arrangement.

Toumani Diabaté and Ballaké Sissoko are the sons of famous players of the kora, a 21-string harp-lute used throughout western Africa. "Bi Lamban" ("Today's Lamban"--a lamban was the centuries-old traditional dance performed by griots, hereditary occupational musicians) is a showcase of virtuosity on this instrument: Sissoko plays the riff over which Diabaté soars. If you like this piece, you're certain to like the entirety of the album this comes from originally, New Ancient Strings. Though tranquil and even entrancing, this is not music to doze off to.

Mah Damba's song, "Koulan Kouman," has dizzyingly-complex playing for a song that simply repeats a riff for 7 minutes. That complexity is matched by Damba's colorful, adventurous singing.

More below the fold.

THE glaring weakness of both these samplers is that neither has a selection by Ali Farka Toure. To get a sense of what that omission is like, imagine a one-disc anthology of Sun Records artists with nothing by Elvis on it. Despite his death last year, Toure remains the undisputed giant of Malian music (go here for a thorough biography), and the more one learns about him, the greater one's admiration grows for this man for whom farming and serving his people (he was once mayor of his home town of Niafunké and personally financed irrigation projects benefiting the the town) were of more value than seeking fame and fortune as a musician.

Red & Green is a packaging together of early Toure albums from the mid- and late-'80s. They are very similar musically; most songs consist solely of Toure on acoustic guitar and Hammer Sankare on calabash. "Timbindy," a song in which the singer woos a reluctant girl, is from Red; it's here also because its little guitar lick will reappear in a very different song, "Allah Uya." "Petenere," from Green, celebrates the heroes of a long-ago war of liberation. Here, Toure is joined by a griot and a n'goni (a traditional instrument that resembles a solid-body ukulele.

For my money, Niafunké (1999) is Toure's best album. He had not made an album in 5 years and rarely performed, having become more dedicated to farming and to the life of his community. Recorded in his spare time when not tending his crops, in an abandoned building with no electricity (the techies brought in a generator), almost every one of Niafunké's songs is marked by strong melodies and singing. Moreover, it has a strong intimate feel to its sound. "Allah Uya" is a song that praises God's omniscience. "Howkouna" is a call to Malians to labor to free themselves and the nation from poverty. This song features one of the more extraordinary sung lines I know of--it moves like water, seemingly obedient only to itself, not even to the song it's a part of, yet working absolutely perfectly within it.

Savane was released four months after Toure died. It has a more expansive sound than does Niafunké, owing to the larger number of musicians joining him and the acoustics of the room it was recorded in: a large reception room in a hotel with an enormous picture window overlooking the Niger. But the arrangements are also expansive, even adventurous. "Erdi"'s lurching riff and yowling harp playing, reminds me in some ways of Led Zeppelin's "When the Levee Breaks." Its lyrics are about the jealousy that can arrive among competing herdsmen. "Machengoidi" ("What Is Your Contribution?") is more traditional in both sound and theme: it argues that the nation and its people can advance only through work, of which there is plenty. Its tempo puts it squarely in the genre of Archetypal Work Song.

Issa Bagayogo seeks to merge traditional Malian song structures and instruments and dub, hip-hop, and other club styles. Of his 3 albums so fare released, I prefer Sya: its fusion, as on "Gnangran," is so successful that determining what is "Malian" and what is "Western" is well-nigh impossible to determine. The low-pitched stringed instrument you hear, by the way, is the kamele n'goni; its percussive qualities add yet another layer of rhythmic complexity to the piece and at the same time provide the song's riffing melody. It has the added advantage of daring you not to dance.

Tinariwen (Tameshek for "empty places") are members of the Tuareg people of the desert north. Western rock stars love to strike the rebellious pose; the members of this band actually formed during the 1990s as they fought against the Malian government out of anger over the Tuareg's isolation and poverty. Most Malian music is in some sense about forming and sustaining community; this band's music, though, given its geographical and political contexts, has a sense of urgency to it that not even Toure's music can match. While musically Tinariwen are most similar to Toure, his songs still have an acoustic feel, even on the electric pieces. Tinariwen's songs' bass lines, though, smooth things out underneath their mesmerizing grooves. Much is also made of Toure's music's similarities to that of John Lee Hooker, but to my ear Tinariwen's music is closer still (and, Howlin' Wolf's "Smokestack Lightning" sounds like it could have come straight from this part of the world, too). Aman Iman: Water Is Life is their most recent album. "Cler Achel" ("I Spent the Day") is a song about wandering, homesickness and longing; "Matadjem Yinmixan" ("Why All This Hate Between You?") urges the Tuareg to forget tribal differences and seek unity as a people.

Tartit is another band comprised of Tuareg people, but it's distinctive because it's led by women who perform unveiled while the men in the band are veiled. Tuareg women have more freedom, relatively speaking, than do most African women--they are permitted to choose (and divorce) their own husbands, for example. But like Tinariwen, Tartit were also formed during the Tuareg rebellion and, like them, sing songs about community, though at a more domestic level. Some of the tracks from this album, Abacabok, weren't just recorded live, they were literally recorded in the desert (in the credits, the crew's driver is thanked for using his truck's headlights as lighting for a nighttime recording session). "Eha Ehenia" is about a woman who is a disgrace to her family--she is a poor hostess, even to her in-laws. Note the taunting quality of the melody. A more instrumentally fleshed out song, "Achachore I Chachare Akale," is a meditation on mutability and transience, and is also interesting because of its abrupt shift in tempo and melody at its halfway point.

Those of you wanting to learn more should visit Mali Music. It is a treasure trove of biographical information (sometimes in French; scroll down the page for English), links to musician websites and music, and more.


Josh Rosenau said...

Check out Benn loxo, too.

soungalo said...

don't forget the mali section on calabash
mali section on calabash -

full disclosure - i'm COO of calabash, but also a certified mali-ophile, having studied and lived there for 6 months.

dd said...

I had no idea how lucky I was to hear Ali Farke Toure perform in 1994. Even then, (the inexperience of youth) I knew I had wandered into something real.

John B. said...

Thanks to all of you for commenting, and to Josh and Sougalo for the links. Sougalo, you'll be pleased to learn that just this morning I became Calabash's newest paying customer. What great music, and at the 20-song discounted price, affordable besides.

dd, based solely on how I respond when listening to Toure at home or in the car, I can't imagine what it must have been like to have heard him live. I'll get some sense of that, though, in a little bit; yesterday, I bought World Circuit Presents, a 2-disc sampler of Nonesuch's world music catalogue, which has a previously-unreleased live performance by Toure, recorded in 2005, the year before he died. He is--he remains--the real deal.

Ariel said...

This is entirely new territory for me, but I'm interested... I'm going to have to go look around for these guys in iTunes.

Pam said...

Okay, I think I'll start with Niafunke - listened to the samplers and really liked them.

John B. said...

Ariel and Pam,
I hope you like what you hear. And Pam, Niafunké will make you a believer.