Guinea: the old (part 1/2)

I’ve just been listening to a track by the Bembeya Jazz National (see the video on the right). A track from the 1960s needs some context so here goes: it was following Guinean Independence in 1958 that saw Guinean pride soar to new levels and numerous bands sprang up throughout the African country. Of those that appeared, one of the most noted was the Bembeya Jazz National, which won two awards at the Biennale festivals of 1962 and 1964. It’s when you listen to Bembeya Jazz that you appreciate that it’s sound is timeless and, unlike Europe’s modern day Biennale X-factor, by contrast Bembeya will provide people in future years with their musical awakening, and fuel a desire to learn about music from the African continent. The group was formed by Aboubacar Dembar Camara in 1961 and the group, which went on to include members such as lead vocalist Sekouba Mabino Diabate, and Sekou “Diamond Fingers” Diabate on electric guitar, specialized in modern arrangements of classic Manding songs. After Camara was sadly killed ina car accident in 1973 critics said the group lost its sparkle, despite continuing for a number of years before finally disbanding in 1991. So here on these pages we salute Camara and members of Bembeya Jazz National for the music and the passion of their grooves.

Cheikh Lo’s Jamm…Chill, and enjoy the groove

I can’t believe I missed this one, but miss it I did, and so for some of the readers this might be old news. But as I am trying to document the best in World music, I will not be deterred from writing about one of my favourite Senagelese artists, who’s album releases are a rarity to say the least – on average they come around once every five years!.

I first discovered Cheikh Lo while browsing a small world music stand in Camden Market, and I met myself 20 years in the future – a man so passionate about his music that all I could do was sit back and listen to him sell me the music.

What I got was my ears around an album (Bambay Gueej) produced by one giant of from the world music scene, Youssou N’Dour, and one from the masters of World Music production, Nick Gold. For me that album has always beent he benchmark for this wonderful artist, and since that original purchase I’ve always been an avid fan.

This album is more laid back and has less of a flamenco, brazilica sound, compared to Lamp Fall, although you do get reminders of that albums, in particular the rolling rhythms of “Sou” as featured on the new album under the name of “Dieuf Dieul”. The track “Ne Parti Pas” is one of my favourite tracks on the album as it has simplicity that I think works really well, great positive vibes and space for the Cheikh’s great voice, equally “Folly Cagni” is almost a Cheikh unplugged and very good track to finish the album up on. Don’t know if it’s me, but Cheikh seems to be sounding more and more like Horace Andy as the age catches up on him.

Ali and Toumani – their finest collaboration

I’ve just bought an album that has to go down as one of the most spectacular of the year, and it’s been carried off by two of my favourite artists: Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate. But you’re probably asking the question, how can Ali return from the grave to record an album? Well, this was his very last, recorded while he was suffering in his final days. For those familiar with these two virtuoso’s prior collaboration, In the Heart of the Moon which was released in 2004, this final recording session was made the following year, but clearly the release has been held back for an opportune moment.

I’m not sure quite how to express the impact that these two artists have had on my musical awakening. Toumani with the Kora, and Ali Farka Toure with his guitar. I think the fact that I do not understand the language being sung (on Ali’s other albums) creates a further distance between me and the artist. I’ve always been an instrumentalist, liking moods and passages creates by sounds and noise over lyrics trying to tell me a story.

The two albums are subtly different. With the former Toumani’s playing features much more strongly, the Kora has more attitude and takes a greater centre stage. It was Toumani’s first major performance on the international stage and Ali gave the protege the chance to shine. Since that first release Toumani has gone on to produce a further 3 albums and has appeared on numerous collaborative projects.

In ‘Ali and Tomani’ they are one. Even if just 12 months seperate the recording there is a perfect harmony and balance between the instruments. The Kora is less aggressive and blends seamlessly with Ali’s playing. For me, track of the album has to be “Soumbou Ya Ya”. It’s just pure Ali and Toumani sharing the love of their instruments. Not since Ali teamed up with Ry Cooder (‘Talking Timbuktu’) has there been such competiting collaboration.

Rest in peace Ali, you went out on the highest plateau.

Best of Bonga – Angola rocks the house

Angolan Legend Bonga
Angolan Legend Bonga

Since the 1970s Angola’s Bonga has featured prominently in the nations music and this is yet another epic slab to hit the World Music scene drawing on performances and works that span his 30 year career. For me Portuguese is one of the most interesting of all languages for music to be sung in, there is just something about its pronunciation and intonation that makes it fabulously interesting to listen to.  If you enjoy the sounds of Sara Tavares, Myra Andrade (who’s new album Storia Storia will soon be reviewed here too) or, the melodies of Madagascar’s Modeste, you’ll find that the Best of Bonga will sit comfortably in your collection.

Pickup a copy of the CD from Amazon here


Introducing the Kora’s top 5 albums

Following our earlier post on the Kora,  let’s now open ourselves up to its fabulous World. [If you’re on the posts page, you can start YouTube video on the right for some Kora background music.]

I’m going to begin with a dedication to the Gambian artist responsible for introducing me to the Kora, his name, Basiru Suso. His album, ‘Suso Kunda’, was for me an epic journey, it shares a timelessness in the same way that Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos do. I don’t think the album was ever commercially released, save for those few copies on display in London’s Leicester Square, but I’m sure he’d be only to happy to answer any enquiries you might have about his music. Basiru’s music is very much free from additives, you get the Kora, and perhaps a plucked bass as backing, and that’s about it, which is just what Kora diehards tend to enjoy the most.

To arrive at Basiru or the more traditional forms of Kora playing, you’ll first need a gentle introduction or you might get scared off. There are usually musical bridges that one comes across moving from one musical style to another.

For example, I arrived at the Kora via this route,
70s Funk -> House Music -> Drum and Bass -> Reggae -> Dub -> African Blues -> Kora

Because everyone’s music history is different, to try and propose an exact starting point is always going to be difficult. So I’ll review the albums here, I think act best as musical bridges, and hope that you identify one that matches your own personal music history.

heartofthemoonAli Farka Touré & Tomani Diabaté – ‘In the Heart of the Moon’
As I type out the name of this album I smile. Ali was the original African bluesman and Toumani shows he can work the Kora like no other. In the Hotel Mande, overlooking the Niger River these two legends came together and recorded one of the singularly most inspired recordings in music history. It’s just pure talent improvising, enjoying and sharing a fusion of guitar and Kora, like no other.  It’s 12 tracks of sublime relaxation, reflection and positivity. You buy this CD because if you’re the type of person that likes to be sent on a journey when listening to music, and it’s because of that, that you have a great music system for hearing it. The recording does not disappoint.

I don’t know if I can actually beat that opener but I’m going to try…

boulevardindependenceToumani Diabaté’s Symmetric Orchestra
The year following the release of ‘In the Heart of the Moon’, Toumani stepped up to the stage with his Symmetric Orchestra to show that, apart from being able to sound mellow, the Kora could also rock just as hard the discotheque. The album is a fusion of funk, and other urban rhythms born out of 10 years of Friday night jam sessions in Bamako’s Hogon Club. It’s what makes the album a much more upbeat and energized affaire then the calming ‘In the Heart of the Moon’. Toumani shares with us songs that cover a complete range of styles, from the slower, ‘Mali Sadio’, which tells the story of a Hippopotamus that drinks from a lake, through to knee bouncing grooves, sweeping backing vocals, and Toumani’s electric Kora playing (as heard on the track, ‘Single’).

bacissokoBa Cissoko – Electric Griot Land
What happens when you plug the Kora into guitar effects boxes? The answer lies with Ba Cissoko, who’ve done just this. This album makes the use of background sounds, and other forms of artificial noise to add great depth and better imagery to their music. The group also performed as support act for Femi Kuti, so their skills are noted at the highest levels. I’m recommending the earlier of their two albums as this is the stronger of the two offerings.
When you take a track like ‘Silani’, on which K’Naan also collaborated, you’ve got to ask why such an album and such talent can’t get high profile on the international stage.

3ma3Ma – Rajery, Ballake Sissoko and Driss El Maloumi
A collaboration between a Madagascan, Malian, and Moroccan provides the cultural context for this cross-border collaboration which that brings together this trio of musicians each armed with their country’s national instrument. Driss brings the Arab lute, Rajery the Valiha (a bamboo tubular zither) and our friend Ballake, the jaw dropping Kora. It’s around the four minute mark of the opening track, ‘Anfass’, that you hear the first fruits born of this beautiful fusion of cultures played out by these very gifted musicians.

tchamantcheRokia Traoré – Tchamantché
As we are building a list of ‘bridging albums’, I’m including an artist in the list that does not actually play the Kora. However, the Kora features so poignantly on her latest album, that I’m including it as it will no doubt encourage listeners of classical and jazz to be brought closer to the Kora. The twist of the Kora in this album is in its combination with Rokia’s voice – always one to bring a cold chill and edginess to her performance that will send shivers down your spine. If you liked Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew back in the 1960s, you’re going to like this one too.

So that ends our introduction to the Kora. I urge you to pick one of the albums above, take a small financial risk and dive in, this is a music you need to hear.

If you’d like to comment on any of the albums featured in this post, please leave your thoughts below for others in the TT community. Remember you can also subscribe to updates of the Tolerant Traveler using Twitter, RSS or the newsletter, meaning you’ll know as soon as a new post is published.

Baaba Maal’s Television – tuned in?

televisionIf you’re reading this post asking yourself who’s Baaba Maal, this is going to be one of your best days in a long time, because we’re about to open your world to an artist that has been dazzling audiences in Senegal for more than 20 years. His latest release, ‘Television‘, is his 11th album in this distinguished career.

Baaba Maal was born in the town of Podor, in the Nigerian region of Senegal. He sings in Pulaar, the language of the Fila ethnic group that, as well as Senegal, can also be found in Benin, Guinea, Niger and Somalia. While the Cora is the traditional instrument for musicians of West Africa (most recently elaborated by the gifted Toumana Diabate), Baaba Maal broke whit tradition and took up playing the guitar.

In part his education at the Beaux Arts in Paris has been responsible for exposing Baaba Maal to Western music and composition, but its also because he is a phenomenally gifted musician that has always sought collaborations and ideas to cross-pollinate his music – after returning from Paris Baaba Maal studied with Mansour Seck, who exposed him to traditional composition, while his 1994 release ‘Firin in Fouta’ brought together ragga, salsa and the Breton harp!

To his latest album now, and if it weren’t Baaba Maal’s unmistakable voice, you’d have great difficulty placing the title track ‘Television’ anywhere at all in Africa because it’s so devoid of African instrumentation. In fact, a consistent theme in this album is its lack of traditional instrumentation. However, due to Baaba Maal’s musical heritage and experience he pulls this off in an amazing way.

This album is an expression of what the music of Senegal could sound like if there was more focus on electronic, instead of traditional instruments. Those seeking the comfort of more traditional sounds will find it in “Tino Quando”, the last track on the album that features a beautiful and simple guitar melody and vocals from Baaba Maal accompanied by backing singers in Italian.

Expect to see a few DJ’s remixing this album as it’s ripe for it.

For more information and purchase options, click here.