FESTIVAL IN THE DESERT (World Village 468020)

René Goiffon of Harmonia Mundi asked me last year if I wanted to go to the festival in the desert, a celebration of Tuareg music which takes place in an oasis north of Timbuktu, Mali. I idly thought about it, as I surely would love to go to Mali, but I can't afford to cancel my classes and hop on a plane, despite the lure of the festival. Now, of course, I'm wishing I'd gone because the CD is great and in fact there's a danger that next year, or certainly the year after, it will be a scene like Burning Man where self-respecting music nuts will be too embarrassed to say they went. Stalwarts of Malian music like Oumou Sangaré, Lobi Traoré (not on the CD though the reputed show-stopper) and Ali Farka Touré were headliners, but acts from all over West Africa and Europe also played in the two day shindig, which had swordplay, a crafts fair and the obligatory camel races to complement the music and dancing. Robert Plant is conspicuous. He turns in a moody ad-libbed blues potpourri with pretty poor guitar work that must mean he's not talking to Jimmy Page. Plant says the festival is one of the few honest thing he's ever been involved in (which tells you where he's been at). And I guess he brought the ice so they had to let him play. The first three tracks, by Afel Bocoum, Takamba Super Onze and Tartit flow together and create a wonderful trancelike mood that is broken by Plant, though some may be ready for a break after three intensely repetitious tracks of rhythmic cycles. The drone quality of Malian music is one of its appeals, though from time to time it sounds like a washing machine thudding away. Things perk up with Oumou Sangaré and then a track from Ali Farka which fades up in the middle of a jam. This is followed by another of the high spots: Tinariwen's haunting insistent "Aldachan Manin." It's so immediate that you truly feel as though you are there. Electricity meets the n'goni on Adama Yalomba's track which is also urgent and compelling.

I am not a purist, I dig Issa Bagayogo's fusion stuff, but the jam between Ludovico Einaudi on piano and kora player Ballake Sissoko did nothing for me: those Keith Jarrett chord patterns are tired. But then we are back in the Sahel with Kel Tin Lokiene (more droning washing-machine music made with voice, drums and handclaps). You have to act fast and skip the next track or be subjected to French rapping. Shudder!

Tindé from Tessalit in Northeastern Mali, near Algeria, are another acapella group with a rhythmic pulse, and they brought to mind a night in the desert in Sudan. I was unable to sleep (the moon was full) and heard a noise like people chanting that seemed to be coming from across the river. I tried to get closer but couldn't locate the source of the music. Also I didn't want to waken any sleeping crocodiles, however I was entranced. After about half an hour wandering about with my tape recorder running it finally dawned on me that it was in fact frogs and insects making this celestial sound. Baba Salah of Oumou Sangaré's band turns out some hard blues riffs fronting his own combo and seems headed to a solo career, which may doom him to obscurity as his backup was rather ragged. Blackfire, a Navajo rock band from Arizona, seem like a novelty. Other than the yodelling back-up singer it sounded like Journey or one of those dire musical dinosaurs. The album ends with a Malian singer/songwriter known as Django in a contemplative mood. Many gems on here you won't find anywhere else. And book your ticket now before the World Beat Weenies ruin it!

MALI JAZZ (Pramisi Records, Holland)

Fra Fra Sound's MALI JAZZ is another great jazz album worth adding to your collection. The melodies are pentatonic (based on a five-note scale) but the richness and improvisational skill is far-ranging. Keyboard-player Cheikh Tidiane Seck, who collaborated with Hank Jones on SARALA seven years earlier, appears on one track. Other big-name guests are the Diabatés: Kélétigui on balafon and Toumani on kora. "Vieux" Kanté plays kamal ngoni on four tracks and Lansiné Kouyate appears on balafon on three other selections.

Fra Fra Sound consists of young Surinamese. This CD came about as a result of their West African tour of 1997. When they got to Bamako the three virtuosi, Toumani Diabaté (kora), Basekou Kouyaté (ngoni) and Kélétigui (balafon), spontaneously jumped in. For this recording cornetist Graham Haynes and percussionist Daniel Moreno (from the New York scene) are also added. The obvious bridge from Africa to jazz and back again is erected and from its summit we can observe both banks. Vieux Kanté starts out "Reminiscence of Bamako" by playing dampened strings (or behind the bridge?) on the ngoni. It brought to mind Hans Reichel's experimental guitar heard on DEATH OF THE RARE BIRD YMIR, as he spiraled down into a blues.

Similarly Basekou Kouyaté bends his ngoni notes down a half-tone at the end of phrases in "Anne Sidi Ki" -- now don't tell me there's no connection between Mali and the blues! (Ali Farka Touré told me he'd never heard of Howling Wolf; was he being coy?) "Sosomali," written by Biswane, has an insistent short riff on top of which the two guest soloists, Vieux Kanté on ngoni and Lansiné Kouyaté on balafon, go riffing. You can tell the man from Surinam is reaching out too, pushing himself to the limit on his guitar. Vieux Kanté does a solo blues on ngoni -- "Dounia" -- again I heard the eerie Reichel guitar sound, then the John Lee Hooker jag of "I'm Mad Again" starts pacing ominously around the vocals. After an ensemble piece where the Malians acquit themselves better in the solos than their hosts, the album ends with a balafon solo, a perfect way to wind down the collaboration.

MANDING-KO (Frikyiwa FKW001)

If traditional Malian music is your thing, you'll revel in a new series of releases from Frikyiwa. French club DJ and producer Frederic Galliano has gone to town on the packaging and done a great mixing job on several traditional albums of balafon, guitar and vocal music from everyone's favourite West African desert destination. With a great ear he has uncovered some stunning talent unknown outside Mali, Guinea and Senegal and produced a series of six albums and a sampler in unique cardboard folders with superb photography. Diéfadima Kanté has a throaty voice and sounds like she's lived a bit, the band are light and solid at the same time. She has been a praise-singer since the '60s and is in full effect here. Her daughter Hadja Kouyaté's album features Ali Boulo Santo on kora and her uncle Kanté Manfila on electric guitar on one track. There's a wah-wah effect on the kora on three tracks, but it's tastefully done. I haven't heard the whole series but I plan on getting the sampler BON COIN as soon as it turns up on these shores.

FOLY! LIVE AROUND THE WORLD (WorldVillage 468021 double CD 2003)

Habib Koité, a Khassonnké from Kayes, has been around for a while, and put out a couple of albums on Putumayo, as well as another on World Village. His touring band includes the great Malian balafon player, Kélétigui Diabate, who led his own phenomenal band, Kélétigui et ses Tambourinis back in the heyday of electrified Manding pop championed by Syliphone. This double album, recorded in Europe in the summer of 2002, captures the excitement and spontaneity of a Malian band in concert. It starts off with Koité's hit "Muso Ko" (also the title of his earlier World Village album). When the band starts to jam, things really open up, though after the first album it starts sprawling. There are a couple of ten-minute tracks on each disc and a 16-minute jam on "Kunfeta" at the end. Inevitably on a double live album there are flat spots, like when the bass player does a popping solo, or the gratuitous reggae number, but fans of Habib Koité will forgive that and add this to their collection.

SINGA (Stern's STCD 1072 1996)

As artists like Baaba Maal and the Rail Band wow Western audiences with their live acts, the plaintive vocals of West African music are becoming less strange to our ears. A new group, Kaira Ben, boasts members with impressive pedigrees from Malian and Senegalese bands. Zoumana Diarra has played guitar with Alpha Blondy, Super Biton, and Super Djata where he met vocalist Idrissa Magassa (who had started out alongside Youssou Ndour in a traditional troupe). Accompanying them are hard hitters Tidiane Koné on saxophone and the legendary Kélétigui on hardwood balafon. Compositions such as "Sara," the classic song by Kanté Manfila (a big hit in the seventies for Les Balladins), help create this album's dreamy, refreshing quality. Another highlight is the haunting "Masani Cissé" a praise song in the style of classic Super Biton with guitar, balafon and sax floating along with Islamic insistency over varied percussion, supplied by Abdramane Fall, and a subtle electric pulse.

TOUMA (Mango 162 539 903-1)

Too much of a good thing, in this case the Paris music scene, has taken the guts out of Mory Kanté's music, which is now an undifferentiated mush of synth strings, synth kora and balafon, drum machines and brief tasty guest solos by Santana and others (I can't read the credits in tiny type!). Most tracks are "danceable," but Kanté & Co's remake of Solomon Linda's "Wimoweh," which opens side B, is execrable. When you consider how badly recorded the Rail Band albums were just a decade ago, you can see why the Malian pop stars would want high production values today, but, like Salif Keita's KO-YAN, the overconfidence of the production swamps any soul or even musical integrity. It has become gum-chewing Griot muzak for the MTV generation.

AT PEACE (Six Degrees)

The turbulence in Mali is getting worse but here is one antidote: an entirely relaxed and peaceful hour of Malian music from the fingers of Ballaké Sissoko who is fast establishing himself as one of the most talented composers and performers on that most Malian of all musical instruments, the kora. He is accompanied intermittently by two guitarists, Moussa Diabaté and Aboubacar "Badian" Diabaté, a balafon player (Fassery Diabaté) & producer Vincent Segal on cello. Only a year ago these men were in Sissoko's yard in Bamako making mellow music, but had to move to Angoulème to finish it. Though you've heard me disparage the collaborations of Malians with western musicians looking to stamp their blues cred cards (& Ballaké has collaborated with Taj Mahal, Ludovico Einaudi and Vincent Segal before), this is his own music with his regular sidemen. "Baidan" Diabaté, who plays 12-string guitar here, formerly performed on the ngoni (which is one of my favourite African instruments) and he is discreet, as is the 6-string player and the balafonist who embroider the melody rather than upholster it. Most surprising is a cover of Brazilian Luis Gonzaga's "Asa Branca," a tune better known as a rousting accordion romp. There are three solo pieces which shows how impressive Sissoko has become. Though he is the son of the virtuoso Djelimady Sissoko, he never received training from his dad. He absorbed the music simply by watching him. While this is not billed as a sequel to last year's Chamber Music, Segal appears here with a pleasant droning undertow to the ripples of kora. The accompanists seem to take over on "Kalata diata" which is indeed "clatter" with clip-clop balafon and dominant mellow cello and guitar in nursery rhyme singsong back and forth. It smacks of muzak or easy listening. Not that listening has to be a chore. Insects and 12-string guitar animate "N'tomikorobougou" while the kora falls back, then pulls out a familiar riff from the Djelimady songbook to reassert itself.

SODJAN (Buda Musique 860216)

While there is only bad news coming out of Mali (2/3rds of the country is now controlled by Islamofascists who are destroying sacred shrines and musical instruments, cutting off hands, whipping women who don't wear the veil, etc etc), the expatriate musicians are producing arguably the finest music currently coming out of Africa. Though Ali Farka Touré started a trend to superstar jams, bringing in Western musicians to raise his profile, the recent trend to dispense with the guest rockers is welcome and is a sign of the confidence of the artists in their own talent. Makan dit Badjé Tounkara is a formidable talent on the n'goni, the wiry gut-stringed instrument that emanates a dry clipped tone, unlike the lush cascading pinwheel glissandos of the kora. With its goatskin body (stretched over wood) it is thought to be the ancestor of the banjo. Here he is accompanied by two other n'goni players, a calabash and karignan (metal scraper, like a guiro), a tamani (2-headed drum) and a djembé (the classic West African drum, often worn round the neck). Makan sings, along with a roster of five guest vocalists, and delivers a brilliant set of flashing insightful traditional Malian music. He grew up around the Instrumental Ensemble of Mali, the traditional group put together on independence, and has since backed the likes of Kandia Kouyaté, Amy Koïta and Mah Damba. He has also played with Sorry Bamba before going solo. This is his second album under his own name, the first was in 2003. He gets some real bluesy sounds from bending strings and delivers a splendid showcase of contemporary Malian n'goni music.

FATOU (Nonesuch/World Circuit)

This is familiar easy-going Malian music and a great place to go aurally. From the start, its ambiance reminds me of Rokia Traore, the standard by which I measure modern Malian music. It's a lovely accomplished recording, with guitar (Fatou herself), ngoni, calabash and Diawara's vocals coasting gently on the breeze. I missed this release last year because it was a $26 import and the label ignored my request for a review copy. Diawara garnered many press plaudits in the UK (Songlines Newcomer Award, etc) and Europe, but I don't see signs of an effective marketing push for her stateside, despite the fact that it's M-O-R Afropop which should appeal largely to a white demographic. The album features guest shots from Toumani Diabate on kora as well as superstars Tony Allen on drums and Led Zep bassist John Paul Jones on bass (I'm surprised it took him so long to climb on the bandwagon, after Robert Plant's rebirth, it must be the arthritis). Diawara is actually Ivorienne but lives in Paris. Robin Denselow, writing in The Guardian, thought her live show lacked emotional range and the intensity of Traoré or the elder Wassoulou songbird, Oumou Sangaré (with whom she used to appear as a backup singer). After all the hype this was somewhat disappointing: it's pleasant but doesn't catch fire. "Bakonoba" does rock out for 3 minutes with electric guitar, bass and kick drums, then it goes back to song as story for which you will need the lyrics (Not provided in the download, unfortunately). Like many others this album may win awards but also just as likely may fall through the cracks. You can preview two of the songs live on Later with Jools Holland here and here. The best song on here has been made into a slick music video: "Bissa."

SARO (Studio Mali)

You can sense the dry hot atmosphere of Bamako in this recording of traditional Malian music, with Andra Kouyaté on bass ngoni, along with calabash, tamani and guitar. Kouyaté has a deep resonant voice to match the bass ngoni (which he made). From a musical family, he started studying ngoni at age 7 and moved to Bamako in 1989 to play with National Badema. In 1997 his big break came when he was invited to tour with Rokia Traore (along with Baba Sissoko on second ngoni). That tour lasted three years and exposed him to a wider world of music, but it also gave us our first opportunity to hear the talented musician. Thereafter, he was in great demand, performing with Fantani Touré, Ali Farka Touré and Toumani Diabaté. In 2005 he was one of the founders of Ngoni Ba with his brother Basekou Kouyaté and together they recorded the wonderful Segu Blue album. He goes from strength to strength and has played with jazz musicians (Raaga Trio), Dee Dee Bridgewater, as well as other African artists. While this is definitely filed under "Traditional," you will be surprised by the sudden lurch into one-drop reggae on the title track, "Saro." I have to say it's by far the best African re-interpretation of reggae I've heard. A wonderful balafon skitters in on this one. Glorious stuff.

KOIMA (Thrill Jockey)

Sidi Touré comes from Gao in Northern Mali, a region currently in crisis as armed mercenaries, ejected from Libya, are battling it out with the regular army for control of resources (Not to mention the armed battles for the rest of the country). Sidi started out with Songhaï Stars, which was the regional orchestra of Gao, but last year went solo and embarked on a US tour with a very laid-back album which I found excellent. His follow-up is not a super-session with a bunch of Western rockers and bluesmen jumping in to prove their connection to roots, but rather a highly accomplished set of real Malian traditional music. Sure you can detect the blues and R&B strains than were familiar in Ali Farka Touré's music, but for the most part it is natural and heartfelt and a great sequel to Sidi's 2011 Sahel Folk. The album consists of ten original compositions played on two guitars, calabash, drums, and the sokou which is a traditional fiddle. It's sparse, clean and quite magical. It's also uptempo enough to get you moving and shaking. Koïma is a giant pink sand dune on the banks of the Niger with wet toes and its head in the sky; literally the word means "go listen," and I suggest you do. Preview here.


Aja Salvatore of Kanaga System Krush is going great guns finding wonderful Malian music that has not been reprocessed for the French disco, the Palooza festival audience or the aged rocker collab scene. Instead he brings us the pure sound of Wassoulou in a shimmering hour of percussion and vocals. Taga is the leader and plays a small high-pitched djembe, the Sogonikun, which is better, he explains, for entertaining bush spirits. There is also the regular hourglass-shaped djembe accompanying him, played by his lifelong friend Yakoub Sidibe, as well as a big bass drum -- the Bari Dunun, which also originated in Wassoulou -- played by hand on one side and a curved drumstick on the higher-pitched side. A fourth cylinder drum is also played with a stick. The lead singer is "Tu" Sinayoko and the response vocals are by Sita Diarra. With this modest ensemble they pack a powerful punch. I guessed Taga was a member of the hunter clan from his headgear on the cover; he is also a traditional medicine man and healer as well as a farmer. As lads he and Yakoub liked to beat on powdered milk cans, then took up ngoni but when their village lacked a drummer and had to hire one, Taga was encouraged by the elders to get serious and study the instrument. His repertoire includes traditional as well as original songs. There is a complex interplay between the rhythms. The song lyrics and even the rhythms used are explained in the liner notes. Not only is Sidibe a master of the traditions, he is a virtuoso on the Sogonikun djembe.

DAMBE FOLI (Kanaga System Krush KSK)

This is Samaké's second album and, like the first, is devoted to traditional Bamana hunters' songs from the Mande people of West Africa. The hunters of Mali predate colonialism, they predate Christianity and Islam. As animists they're in touch with the spirits which are part of their natural surroundings. The lead instrument is the traditional harp of the hunter, a kind of ngoni which is familiar from Ngoni Ba as well as Issa Bagayogo. It's been twenty years since Musique du Monde put out his first album Music of the Hunters of Sebenikoro, which I often aired on my African Music Program on the radio. Back then Sibiri was hailed as a young virtuoso, born into the hunter clan, who had adapted to being a griot as well as a hunter. Traditionally hunters are responsible for the police force and medicine (learned from the forest), as well as providing fresh meat to their communities. Sabaré's bluesy vocals and resonant bass instrument (which is bluesy in the extreme) is accompanied here by karinya, or iron scraper, and kusubu, or shaker. Imagine Jack Bruce & Ginger Baker (with or without the red hair and kilts) & you get a sense of the dynamic jamming interplay between the ngoni and the percussionists. And like "Live at the Fillmore" there are four tracks that were captured in one take each. (Funny that I thought of Wheels of Fire because it also has two really long tracks and two less-long tracks...) The title means "traditional music," but if they had styled it a rootsy jazz-blues jam from the modern city of Bamako it would have made as much sense. Another superb offering from the KSK label.


Released by RCA in 1973 this is the fourth long playing album by the legendary Rail Band of the Buffet bar of the Railway hotel in Bamako, according to Graeme Counsel's discography. The first two tracks were included on Stern's Belle Epoque vol 3. The disc opens with "Jurukan," a majestic unraveling ballad with great sax and young Mory Kante singing. This is followed by an up-tempo funk number, "Mariba Yassa" with some wild breaks on drum and a scorching guitar solo. The third tracks "Badiamale" was gathered in 2008 on Mali 70/Electric Mali. With its horn chorus and filigree guitar work, I would say this is a perfect example of their early sound after Djelimady Tounkara took over as guitarist and band leader. The fourth track, "Sunan," a lilting swinging driving groove, has not been previously anthologized, to my knowledge. Track 5, the majestic "Duga" kicks off the second disc in Stern's Belle Epoque series which, as I have said, is the cornerstone of any Malian music collection. (The Rail Band's "Duga" is different from Orchestre Regional de Kayes' song with the same title and has flamenco flourishes in the guitar.) "Nantan" is a weird little ditty, almost a complaint. It made it to Electric Mali in the African Pearls series. The last cut, "Moko jolo," which features the saxophonist & Mory Kante's attempt to do the James Brown, was on Musique du Mali vol 2 on the Melodie label. As this is a pricy import you may be content with the highlights gathered elsewhere but for Rail Band fanatics there is something grail-like about these early albums in their original sequence and with restored sound.

SAHEL FOLK (Thrill Jockey)

Sidi Touré and his friends turn in nine great acoustic tracks of easy-going West African music with lilting "dry" guitars. Sidi hails from Gao, once capital of the Songhaï empire that sits on the banks on the Niger with its back to the vast Sahara desert. Like Salif Keita, Touré came from a noble family and was discouraged from being a griot: those were lower caste people the Tourés did not mix with, so his brother broke his home-made guitar. But at 16 Sidi joined Songhaï Stars, the Regional Orchestra of Gao. But he is not one to simply reinterpret traditional songs, in fact he likes Kenny Rogers and J.J. Cale. For this, his second solo album, he chose to record with a rotating roster of friends, so each song is a duet, done in one or two takes on his sister's porch. In addition to guitar, the other instruments dueting here are kutigui, a single-string instrument, & kurbu, a 3-string instrument. If Ali Farka opened the door for a wider appreciation of Malian acoustic music, Sidi Touré beckons us in with a warm welcome.

KABAKO ZANI (Kanaga System Krush CD005)

It has been over a decade since we heard from Zani Diabaté. Back then he was heading an electric outfit called Super Djata Band. Raised in a traditional griot family, he played djembé and danced with a folkloric troupe. By his teens Diabaté could play many instruments when he took up the guitar & formed Super Djata. They toured and had a 1988 release on Island which was a global hit among world music devotees. After Super Djata he became director of the National Ballet of Mali and then was appointed Minister of Culture where he was able to work to his goal of preserving the rich cultural heritage of the music and dance of Mali. But in addition to his governmental duties and teaching, Diabaté continues to play guitar and has teamed up with another acoustic guitarist, Moudy Sissoko, who has been accompanying Zani for twenty-five years. They have added vocalist Oumou Diabaté, who became well-known when she fronted Super Rail Band in the 80s, for a great unplugged set of traditional songs. Sadly, Zani died in January 2011 so this is the last we are likely to hear from him, until someone anthologizes his career for a retrospective tribute.

THE SECRET (Six Degrees)

With only a couple of albums behind him, Vieux has arrived in the spotlight so recently vacated by his father Ali Farka Touré. On this stately outing he collaborates with a bunch of Western rockers and jazz and bluesmen, including Derek Trucks (slide guitarist from the Allman Brothers), singer Dave Matthews, John Scofield. Even his late dad manages to muster the chops for the title cut. Vieux has adopted the tone of his dad's skirling bluesy guitar over the calabash and bass and occasional Western trap drums. Among the Malians there's flautist Cheick Diallo and Ganda Tounkara on ngoni. But the dominant sound is electric blues, and "Lakkal (Watch out)," while featuring Vieux's guitar and vocals, is mostly given over to producer Eric Krasno's scorching lead guitar, rock bass and drums, and Ivan Neville on a wailing Hammond organ. Another high spot is the appearance of jazz guitarist John Scofield who tears off some Arabic-sounding minor riffs and pushes the rest of the band to excellence on "Gido."

MALI DENHOU (Lusafrica)

Boubacar is back and that's great news. He was a star in Mali half a century ago at the time of Independence. The Twist and the Madison were big then, as they were in England & the USA (The Madison, which is a line dance, was featured in the cult film Hairspray). Boubacar had hits with those rhythms and was known as "Kar Kar" after one of his biggest hits. The first Malick Sidibe book I bought had a Boubacar CD in it as part of the package; I thought he was one of the legendary old-time guitarists who had vanished: he was even thought dead by the Malian fans! But he was rediscovered and in 2002 a movie about him came out in France (I haven't seen it). But he did come on tour before returning to his homeland. Now, almost 70, he has cut a fine new album of gentle bluesy songs with his acoustic guitar and a French harmonica player. There's also calabash and n'goni. The producers brought us the fabulous Djelimady Tounkara solo album of a couple of of years ago. I hope they repeat the success with this mellow offering.

COURAGE (World Village 468108)

This is almost a novelty: a kora album that is purely African. I mean there's no horn section, no banjo, no slide guitar, no trap drums, no Latin beat, no remix, just some great kora playing. I guess that's why it's called Courage! Diabaté's fourth album, Douga Mansa, won a Grammy in 2009. Like the Oscars the Grammies have little weight outside the industry, people stick with what they know and like, but it does mean more exposure. Also Diabaté has lived in the USA so is probably bit more up on marketing strategies and dealing with label folks than his cousins in Bamako. Though there are familiar strains, and a couple of classic pieces, the material is nearly all new, composed and arranged by Diabaté and features, in addition to his kora, a balafon, ngoni and acoustic bass. There is also percussion on calabash or djembe as the mood suits. On "Diayeh bana" the balafon stretches out and touches on "The Flight of the Bumblebee," and "Shortenin Bread" -- or so it seems to me. Beautifully recorded, this is a meditative album, one you can listen to over and over.


Kora & cello seems like a natural pairing. Throw in the occasional ngoni or balafon and you have a really mellow set of chamber music, a magical night in Bamako unlike any other. The cross-cultural fusion works well. The kora leads the way but the cello augments it wonderfully with its woody bowed tones. One thing struck me, and that was the opening of "Houdesti," where, for a second, I thought Sissoko was about to go into the "Deliverance" theme on his kora! Then it goes into a minor key riff, much more evocative of "Good King Wenceslas." I have been thinking about this & similar carols, such as "We three kings of Orient are," over the Christmas holiday as I have been rocking out on the piano. Many of the best carols use minor chords to evoke "the Orient" (where the Three Kings came from). I don't know if early Victorian composers knew about pentatonic scales but they certainly caught the spirit of the mysterious "East". By the height of the Victorian era it was perfected in Russia by Tschaikovsky in his Nutcracker Suite which includes many wonderful pseudo-"Oriental" riffs. But I digress. The Orient is not so far and pentatonic scales are familiar friends. "Histoire de Molly" by Segal has clearly been written out and arranged, so Sissoko's part is not improvised but carefully constructed to tell the story. It works well. Vocals appear unobtrusively on one number, otherwise we are in a twilight of gentle sounds with only the odd incursion of karignan -- the metal scraper -- or bolon, played by Demba Camara. I am reminded of other artists who had African music by heart, South African Dollar Brand & American Randy Weston, but what they created has a universal appeal.

MALI LATINO (Alex Wilson, self-published)

This has more the level of energy you would want from AfroCubism. The pinnacle of Jazz or Latin fusion with Malian traditions is still Sarala by Hank Jones and Cheikh Tidiane Seck. Some other outings, notably those of Pee Wee Ellis on Cheikh Lo's, Toumani Diabaté's & Oumou Sangare's discs, have been memorable for their fire and energy. Here is a great melding of kora, balafon and Malian griot singing with Latin jazz. The first two tracks are superb: It kicks off with a rocking "Donkan" and though the next track "Sangre Mandinga" is slower, both explode out of the speakers. Credit Toumani's brother Sidiki on kora and multi-instrumentalist Ahmed Fofana from the Symmetric Orchestra. Things cool down a bit, and the noodly "Voyage" is lost, a trip to nowhere, with Alex Wilson's piano dripping clustered foolery seemingly aping balafon scales. There's also some dated Jan Hammer-like Moog on "Bamako 2000," but the rest of the band are doing their part admirably. So it does go pear-shaped after a promising start. It was recorded in Bamako and at Real World Studios in Wiltshire, probably by overdubs, otherwise the Malians might have pulled the plug on the ostensible leader. In "Joie au village," Wilson gets it together with some decent montuno piano as Ahmed Fofana's balafon takes a very ornamental solo followed by Madou S. Diabaté on the kora. Then fat trombones come charging in from Nicol Thomson and Jonny Enright, like rhinos on steroids. The kora and balafon take the lead in the latter end of the disc. Apart from the lapse in the middle, this is a commendable outing.


I have a problem with remix albums. They all sound the same. That is to say the DJs have each other as a frame of reference so they are all trying to ape the success of Gaudi or Cheb i Sabbah. The remixers are not musicians but rather engineers who are adept at looping samples, layering in synth and juxtaposing anachronistic elements to create a new sound. I try to wade through those that come my way, but it's usually sub-disco mush with only a whiff of the original music perceptible under the layers. So when Footsteps in Africa showed up six months ago I gave it a spin and my first thought was, There's already a strong trance element in Saharan music, why mess with it? But then the album resurfaced and I tried it again. After several tries I began to like parts of it; now it's my default album to put on when I want music but don't want to pay attention to it, like when I am reading, cooking, sewing, or just messing about. There's a whole array of famous DJs on here so there is at least some variety to the music though two tracks have been remixed twice and another thrice. I am not going to go blind trying to tell you what's on here because the sleeve has the worst typography I have seen this year: it's 4 and a half point white Uncial type with floating shadow over coloured half-tones. It's too small to read any of it, so the designer also escapes notice. That's the negative part: on the plus side Jamshied Sharifi combines the wobbly sine-wave wash with Gyuto monks and a huge echo chamber that swallows everything whole. But now and then a wild fiddle brings a human touch to the robotic drum beats. What that track has to do with Africa I can't tell you, but the "Red Ladies Tent Jam" clearly has Tuareg ladies making jam with a trap drummer, harmonica player and guitarist learning Mick Abrams's "Cat's Squirrel" atop it. The SonicTurtle remix of more Tuareg ladies' jam is awful, sounds like a hookah bubbling, but that is quickly swept away by the "Tuareg Goosi Jam in Tent." How's that for a nutty title? Then there's a better mix of the "Aheahedon Tuareg Women's Jam" by Nickodemus. The end titles (Solar Lion remix) is oddly a reggae track (with sitar) to change the mood entirely. If you like the Tuareg stuff, especially the stony trancelike women chanting and handclaps, you might enjoy the augmented set here. Worth a listen anyway.