Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Niafunké: An appreciation

The cover for Niafunké.

I haven't posted on music on this blog in some time. However, I recently wrote a review for this album over at Amazon, and I thought I'd share it with my reader(s) here.

Let's be honest: Records that give pleasure to the listener are, relatively speaking, a dime a dozen. We hear them on the oldies stations; our collections are filled with such music. Far rarer is music for which the listener feels genuine, profound gratitude to its maker for having made it and for his/her own great, good fortune for having heard of it before s/he died. Niafunké is most definitely on my list of such music.

I don't believe I had even heard of Ali Farka Touré before a friend played Niafunké for me almost ten years ago. A couple of songs in, and I actually felt something like shame that I had not known about this man and his music long before: it was--and is--that good, that gripping and compelling.

The first four songs give the listener an idea of this album's musical range: "Ali's Here," a rave-up that prepared me, without knowing it, for Tinariwen; "Allah Uya," a song whose melody and rhythm, despite its religious subject matter, can't help but evoke slow movement across the desert and which, I'd learn much later, borrows a little guitar lick from Red & Green's "Timbindy"; "Mali Dje," a slow-tempo plea to Touré's nation's peoples to work together for their common survival (and thus an indirect introduction to Mali's history of inter-ethnic (and sometimes intra-ethnic) violence); and "Saukare," my introduction to the njarka, the Malian violin--a screechy-sounding instrument that is, admittedly, an acquired taste (it has grown on me, but I admit it took a while). These songs also serve as a partial introduction to Malian music more generally; all that's missing is southern Mali's Nigerian- and Senegalese-influenced music (as embodied by Habib Koité and Oumou Sangare), a kora piece (the kora is the Malian harp) by Toumani Diabaté, and something from Sya, Issa Babayogo's masterful melding of traditional instruments and musical forms with Western techno.

But for me the real revelation on Niafunké is "Howkouna," a song whose melody feels, to this Western listener anyway, as though it's beginning in the middle of a line (Savane's "Erdi Yer Bounda" has that same quality); then the njarka's repeated riff kicks in; and then that extraordinary second part of the song where the sung melody line just goes and goes past the point that it feels like it "should" stop, slowly down the scale, occasionally turning back up the scale before heading back down again, like water seeking out a downhill route. You know it's structured because the chorus knows the words and will sing them back, call-response style, but it feels, if not improvised, then certainly organic. Even today, after many subsequent listens, that second part still catches me anticipating its end and being surprised when it keeps going.

There are also the circumstances of this record's being made that enhance its aura for me: Touré had not recorded in five years and was disappointed in his more recent records; he rarely performed; he had devoted himself to improving the lives of his fellow citizens of Niafunké by becoming its mayor and purchasing irrigation equipment for its farmers. The basic tracks were recorded in an abandoned mud building on the outskirts of town, after Touré was done tending his fields for the day. It's clear that Touré wanted to make this record; it's equally clear, though, that there were other things to do while he made it, more pressing than guitar-playing . . . and who would argue that? And yet: Look at what resulted--a record whose subjects are those other, more pressing things, along with the urgency of embracing them. This is political and spiritual music in the most essential senses of those terms--which is to say, it is communal.

Of course, when I first listened to Niafunké, I was just as ignorant of the Malian artists named above; it is because of Niafunké that I know what I do of them, and that is the other reason I am so grateful for this record. I wanted to hear more, so I looked for samplers; the same friend who introduced me to Niafunké also played me Issa Bagayogo's Sya; one thing led to another, as these things do, and now I have some inkling of Mali's (and by extension, western Africa's) musical richness. Before hearing Niafunké, that richness was one of those examples of things that we don't know that we don't know (which, of course, we can recognize only in retrospect); after hearing Niafunké, I had to remind myself that ignorance is not a sin (except when it's willful) but, as I noted above, I couldn't help feeling a bit ashamed for not having head it before.

Can you tell I like this album? I like lots of music, and lots of different kinds of music; there are few records, though, that I will recommend without reservation to anyone with a varied musical palette, or willing to cultivate one . . . or even to the not-so-willing. You've often heard it said that Kind of Blue is that album you recommend to someone who says he hates jazz. For me, Niafunké is the Kind of Blue of Malian music.

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