“You can catch a cricket in your hand but its song is all over the field.” (Madagascar proverb)
Many forms of music, including American blues, have their origins in the rich ore of African culture and musical tradition. Today, artists from Africa continue to influence and inspire all genres of music with their creative explorations of unique African polyrhythms and melodies. From the propulsion of Hugh Masekela’s searing masterpiece, “Stimela” (“The Coal Train”) taken from his anti-Apartheid declaration on his live 1994 audiophile gem, Hope [Triloka Records] to the spinning melodic lightness of Toumani Diabate’s kora (a 21-string bridge harp) on his 2008 recording, Mande Variations [World Circuit], audiophiles and intrepid music lovers have always relished the evolving sounds of the African landscape.
Now, new dynamic voices from that rich African pulse beckon. On April 14th, at the Royale Theatre in Boston, (in a concert presented by World Music/CRASHarts; www.worldmusic.org) a capacity crowd swayed to the hypnotic sounds of Tinariwen (www.Tinariwen.com), a band originally from Libya and Mali, whose dynamic new sounds ignite the body to dance from its first earthy beats.
Tinariwen’s music is a defiant act: Mali is currently in a state of war as radical Islamic forces seek to silence Malian cultural life in all its forms. This repression includes silencing young musicians who seek to explore their rich griot and blues traditions (along with influences such as rap and funk from the West) in their enlightened music making. (A newly released documentary film in the US, Mali Blues, [Icarus films; www.icarusfilms.com] explores this issue in a powerful account).
The members of Tinariwen entered the Royale stage dressed in traditional clothing with flowing gowns, faces covered in traditional fashion and colorful accents (large fabric bags sewn with beautiful colors). Immediately, the crowd greeted them and their first pulses of guitar electricity with cheers and hands held high. Lead singer Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, stirred the slow blues rush of his song, “Imidiwan ahi Sigdim” (taken from Tinariwen’s excellent 2014 recording, Emmaar [Wedge Records] to ignite the dance. On this tune, all five guitarists, (flashing their electric and acoustic guitars with punchy and slurry notes), provided a river of gauzy colors behind Alhousseyni’s deep calls. Another of Alhousseyni’s songs, “Tahalamot” brought slow bluesy swirling colors, quick hand claps and the pitter patter of Siad Ag Ayad’s light shifting drumming (on his eclectic collection of African drums) – all exploding around Alhousseyni’s low prowling vocals.
Lead guitarist and singer Ibrahim Ag Alhabib brought a pulsating, driving presence to his song, “Koud Edhaz Emin”, an upbeat tenacious blues number, filled with dancing, sunny grooves. This cut had several members of the band unfurling graceful dance moves as they gently rocked back and forth (with arms outstretched) in meditative response to the fluttering grooves.
The hypnotic rise and fall, attack and decay, of Tinariwen’s bracing music came to a crescendo on the surging tune, “Toumast Tincha,” composed by singer and guitarist Eyadou Ag Leche.
This swirling electric blues creation gathered fierce momentum on the wave of its guitarists’ wash of huge sounds (big chords, splintered notes, circular rhythmic patterns) that somehow came together to form a unified wave of sound surging underneath Leche’s urgent, brewing vocals. This was music of renewal, of fresh penetrating grooves and sounds that unleashed the blues in a new direction: elastic, incandescent and defiant. The crowd would not let the band off the stage without them playing several encores. These included a gentle acoustic journey (burbling on Leche’s subtle bass lines) and then a fiery rocking number that took the night home with Tinariwen’s talented guitarists sputtering and churning rapid-fire notes in all directions – their pile-driving grooves keeping the dance alight.
There is another face of new music from Mali that is also based in blues and dance, but instead of deep electric grooves, it is created from shifting soft melodies and rhythms that invite contemplation. This music is captured in stunning beauty on Musique De Nuit, [Six Degrees Records], a duet recording between Ballake Sissoko, a Malian kora master, and Vincent Segal, an intrepid cellist from France.
On this stellar recording, these two musicians forge an elegant musical partnership that transcends borders (and artificial musical categories) in their blend of Malian folk melodies weaved with colorful blues, samba and classical themes. The recording is wonderful: the first tracks were recorded at night on the roof of Sissoko’s house in Bamako, Mali by Sebastian Tondo and these outdoor recordings bring the listener right into the organic creation of this music out of doors. (Don’t be alarmed to hear animals calling from the neighbors’ yards or the hum of traffic on the roads of Bamako surrounding the music making on this terrace at night).
The rest of the album was recorded by Tondo at Studio Bogolan in Bamako and these cuts too are superb in their immediacy; their tactile presence and their image dimensionality (as both Sissoko and Segal sit before you in natural image and position). This is an audiophile gem to be savored.
The music here matches its superb sonics with an intimacy of expression and individual virtuosity that is brilliant. The chemistry between these two players is uncanny and sympathetic.
Sissoko brings his lilting and swirling Malian melodies on his twinkling kora while Segal imbues his own creations with his resonant and expressive cello. The recording opens with Sissoko’s “Niandou” spinning forth from Sissoko’s sparkling kora, penetrating and bright, like a rush of falling smooth stones into water. Segal joins him in his pinpoint cello plucks, full and resonant. Together they create a maelstrom of colors that tangles and runs into beautiful harmonic and melodic places. Sissoko’s “Balazando” is another beauty ignited on Segal’s propulsive cello plucks, holds and trills that lead into Sissoko’s soulful melody. All of this drama snakes and winds itself into sumptuous music-making with Segal bowing his cello obliquely (to sound like a wind instrument) and Sissoko’s kora brightly dancing around Segal’s resonant punctuations (leading back to the comfort of Sissoko’s lilting melody once again). “N’Kapalema” brings more spinning virtuosity, particularly highlighting Sissoko’s delectable artistry on his kora in which he finds ways to combine racing notes with dynamic contrasts to create a warm bath of giddy colors and shimmering sounds.
We are also gifted on this recording to hear the amazing voice of Malian singer Babani Kone, as she sings in regal and magnificent form on Sissoko’s “Diabaro,” a slow brewing ballad. How Kone forms her vocal embellishments with such deep, soulful fluttering and control, is a marvel.
Segal’s compositions on this fascinating journey are full of radiance and invention and they highlight the confluence so richly possible between African and other global traditions. His “Samba Tomora” rollicks between sparks of Spanish/Caribbean melody (with plucky cello dives) and Sissoko’s twinkling African motifs. Segal’s “Passa Quatro” is another lesson in global unity: starting with Segal’s slow, meditation on his cello (echoing classical and Spanish flare), and ending in an exuberant romp of crisp dancing African rhythms pulling the world on its string.
*Next Up: New Music From Africa Taking Dance and Jazz Into New Territory