s the recent release of Festival in the Desert demonstrates, the links between Africa and American rhythm and blues aren't merely historical. There's a vibrant, fascinating musical culture thriving in Mali and in other west African nations that has been championed by Robert Plant, Stevie Wonder and even Bruce Cockburn. If you're a fan of traditional American music, then check out Ali Farka Toure, the Malian John Lee Hooker, whose music is relatively well-known in the west, and is therefore pretty easy to track down. Or try Amadou et Mariam, the Blind Couple of Mali, who started creating music in a school for blind musicians set up by Stevie Wonder. Personally, though, I'd suggest beginning your Malian musical journey with Mamadou Sidibe. Sidibe's Nacama was just released, and it features an almost seamless blend of blues licks and African rhythms. It's one of the most pleasant albums I've heard in years.
Sidibe has been performing music in Europe, North America, and his native Africa since the early 1980s. He was instrumental in transforming Malian music from its religious and sacred origins to more contemporary terrain (meaning songs about love, politics and daily life). He's performed with artists from Cuba, the United States, France and many other countries. In other words, he's been around, and this album demonstrates this very well. There is an effortless blending of musical styles, tempos and even languages throughout. More importantly, he follows one of the truest of musical rules: keep it simple, stupid.
Take "Nemalon". There are really only three basic parts to this song: the kameln'goni (a sort of guitar) melody, the very African rhythm (at times parallel to the melody, at times in contradiction to it); and the vocals, which are sung in, I think, Bambara (the main language in Mali) and English (Sidibe's partner, Vanessa Janora Sidibe, sings the English choruses). These three elements blend together to create a song that is, in fact, quite complex. It combines not only languages but also musical sensibilities (African and rhythm and blues). This is a great example of how African music has managed to incorporate the influences and styles of popular music in the United States and elsewhere in order to expand and broaden their own traditional music styles. The results in "Nemalon" are beautiful, lilting, and even a bit hypnotic.
The other songs on this album use these same sparse tools to create similar, fascinating effects. "N'goni Kadi" is a complex instrumental, featuring the kameln'goni; "Fula" has a great rhythm (using a metallic xylophone-like instrument, shakers, bass, and some other, fuzzy instrument); and the title song features some wonderful vocal work by both Sidibes (including Vanessa's cryptic English lyrics, "It's the real world / Destiny"). There isn't a bad song in the bunch here, and each one offers a different take on the same simple elements Sidibe uses to create all his work.
Perhaps what I like best about this album is that it features largely acoustic instruments; there aren't any electric guitars (or even electric kameln'gonis) here. Since Sidibe's instrumentation is so essential—and dominates so many of the songs—I sense a close kinship between this album and the music of, say, Leadbelly, early Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and other classic country blues artists. Of course, Sidibe's music is entirely different from the work of those American artists. Sidibe plays Malian music, where rhythm is central to all facets of life; his kameln'goni is usually the melodic accompaniment to the intricate rhythms. However, at the center of his music is the same sensibility that you'll find in Muddy Waters: a sense of music as a tool for the recreation of everyday life into something special, even magical. There aren't many good blues albums being made in America today; but there are plenty in Africa. Nacama is one of the best of recent years.
Reviewed by: Michael Heumann
Reviewed on: 2004-12-01