What Ali Farka Toure’ accomplished with his Talking Timbuktu album with Ry Cooder, has been consolidated and spread like wildfire through the otherwise harsh reality that is the African country of Mali. The fact that it is really two countries- one Saharan and Semitic, one sub-Saharan and negroid- is the creative conjunction where sparks fly and old battles die, IF (i.e. big if), you can hold it all together. Bottom line, Mali has some of the best music in the world, bar none. In fact, on a per capita basis, given its population of less than fifteen million, it’s arguably THE best music in the world. Too bad it’s so hard to travel there independently, and so expensive once you get there, no small irony in a country with per capita income of less than $700 per year. You could easily spend that on a hotel for a week.
So, have fun if you can find those legendary dimly-lit (lighted?) clubs where people with surnames like Toure’, Diabete’, and Keita show up to play. There’s more than a few of those names, and they may not all be related- not closely anyway- though they probably all know each other, by this time at least. Don’t be shocked when you see street signs with those same names, IF you see any street signs at all. There isn’t much there btw. If you want to go to that night club, you’ll probably need a guide. Bring lots of cash. There aren’t a lot of ATM’s. You’ve been warned.
It’s probably easier to just buy the CD’s, since Mali is now firmly on the world music market, one of the five pillars in fact. Within the country itself you’ve got maybe four or five distinct genres again. Though I haven’t seen any scholarly studies on it (that’s what I’m here for, right?), it seems as though there are genres of traditional/classical/'griot'- e.g. Diabate’, Sahel folk- e.g. Ali Farka Toure’, Tuareg folk rock- e.g. Tinariwen, urban folk blues- e.g. Ali Farka’s son Vieux, and… I’m still thinking, so give me a minute, please…
Meanwhile check out two of the newest releases from a couple of Traore’s (not to be confused with Toure’), Lobi and Boubacar, not related, so far as I know, but… it’s a small country. Lobi Traore’ may have died prematurely last year year at the age of forty-nine, but his music will live on in this group of live recordings from those same dingy night clubs that you’re wandering around the streets of Bamako looking for. If the album starts off a bit slowly but distinctly with the folksy percussive ‘Makono’ and ‘Banan Ni’, by the time we get to songs four and five ‘Jama’ and ‘Mali Ba’ Lobi and band are kicking ass. ‘Bi Donga Fa Ko’ shows some surprising pop hooks and may indeed be the best song on the album, despite its seventh place in the batting order. The album is called ‘Bwati Kono’. Check it out.
Boubacar Traore’ is something else altogether. Firmly within the ‘Sahel Folk’ genre, this is the only person in the Mali music scene that is perhaps even as important as Ali Farka Toure’, and in fact even pre-dates him. If Ali Farka’s music was the revelation, then this is the confirmation. If there was any further proof needed of the close relation between US blues and Mali folk music, then look no further. Regardless of the details in a history largely unwritten, it’s obvious that these two genres have a common source. One branch got shipped off to Clarkdale, MS, up in Coahoma County, while the rest stayed behind in the savannahs and woodlands of Africa, eking out a living there. Only now are they being reunited, through music.
Traore’s newest album ‘Mali Denhou’ is a wonder. If ‘M'Badehou’ and ‘Dundobesse M'Bedouniato’ are pleasant-enough ballads to lead off with, the latter featuring a nice acoustic-guitar lead solo, ‘Mondeou’ turns up the tempo significantly, and by this time you may have a hard time sitting still. I should probably mention the killer harmonica work by French harpster Vincent Bucher, who literally kills on this album, in effect making it a cross-cultural collaboration, some of the best blues harp I’ve ever heard, in fact, albeit of the acoustic sort.
Title song ‘Mali Denhou’ starts off with some really nice atmospheric percussion before settling into a solid blues groove, and then ‘Minuit’ takes a French-style ballad and turns it into a talking blues. ‘Farafina Lolo Lora’ and ‘Djougouya Niagnini’ slow things down a bit, but ‘N'Dianamogo’ puts a pulse back into the beat and ‘Mali Tchebaou’ is an especially nice closer. All in all this ranks up there with the best of Ali Farka and highly recommended. I don’t know if he’s touring the US or Canada this summer, but I’ll be looking.
Ah, summer, it’s that time again, festival season, time to listen to music outdoors, where God intended. Here in LA, best bets for that are the two Levitt Pavilions in MacArthur Park and Pasadena and Grand Performances downtown, featuring such acts as Sambada, Bombino, Seun Kuti, Khaira Arby and Rupa and the April Fishes. Further afield, the Canadian Folk Festivals deserve special mention, in places like Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, and even Dawson City, featuring some of the best world music around, amongst other compatible genres. If the gods are willing, I myself will be in Calgary, which is featuring too many great acts to mention. C U there.