Africans Go Acoustic for Blues, Folk and Tribal Sounds

Don Snowden is a frequent contributor to Calendar.

The misconception that all African music sounds alike is long gone--the flood of releases since King Sunny Ade reawakened interest in African sounds took care of that. But it's true that most of the music released here has stressed the danceable pop styles formed from the collision between traditional African styles and Western influences and instruments.

What happens when African musicians turn the amps down or off? That's the focus of this Africa Unplugged edition of On the Offbeat, a periodic column covering roots, ethnic and pop music styles from around the globe.

**** Baaba Maal & Mansour Seck, "Djam Leelii," Mango.

** 1/2 Mansour Seck, "N'der Fouta Tooro, Vol. 1," Stern's Africa. Yes, "Djam Leelii" was recorded in 1984, just before Maal formed his current electric band. Yes, it has been available on CD for years. But no, it hasn't been surpassed among acoustic African recordings for the exquisite way these Senegalese singer-guitarists intertwine their voices and instruments (augmented by electric guitar, percussion and the marimba-like balafon ) into an entrancing, meditative flow.

That sense of flow is largely absent from Seck's first American release. Maal drops in to sing one song, but Seck's vocal partner this time is fellow griot Ousmane Hamady Diop, whose loud, hard voice often stands in jarring contrast to Seck. The percussion is more forceful and the guitar busier, but the music here never jells--and that's the difference between engrossing music like "Djam Leelii" and merely interesting.

*** Kante Manfila, "N'na Niwale (Kankan Blues, Chapter II)," Popular African Music (German import). Manfila was the guitarist-instrumental foil to Salif Keita in Mali's great Les Ambassadeurs band of the '70s and early '80s, and "N'na Niwale" is his second volume that reveals the acoustic roots of electric Malian music. Manfila plays more lead runs than Maal or Seck, but the general sound is similar--acoustic guitars interlaced with vocals and soothing, bubbling balafon . The blues reference in the title tells the story--this sounds like folk music played on a back porch, down by the river or wherever Malian musicians get together for the sheer joy of making music.

*** 1/2 Oumou Sangare, "Moussoulou," World Circuit/Rounder. Sangare is the leading exponent of the Wassoulou Sound, named for a region in Mali where female singers predominate and the music remains grounded in tradition with a few contemporary touches tossed in. "Moussoulou" turned her into a star at 21 in Africa five years ago, and it's easy to see why--Sangare's soulful and commanding voice soars over spare arrangements topped by Alijou Traore's mournful violin. Its chief drawback is its brevity--32 minutes--and that may tip the scales toward Sangare's other World Circuit CD, "Ko Sira," as an introduction to this major new African artist.

*** 1/2 Cecile Kayirebwa, "Rwanda," GlobeStyle/Rounder. Belgium-based Kayirebwa's decision to draw on the oral and musical traditions of all of her native country's tribal groups for original material takes on a tragic dimension in light of the genocide in the East African nation. "Rwanda" is compiled from four '80s releases, but it attains the same mesmerizing quality achieved by Zimbabwe's Thomas Mapfumo. The real strength of "Rwanda" lies in the arrangements--violin, flute and thumb piano repeatedly pop up in delightfully unexpected places, and Kayirebwa's voice surprisingly gives the music almost a native American flavor at times.

*** The Justin Vali Trio, "The Truth (Ny Marina)," Real World/Caroline. The sound of Madagascar is the current African music craze, thanks to several recent Shanachie releases focusing on its acoustic music tradition. Paris-based Justin Vali and his trio operate within that sphere, and the music on its debut album contains some of the delicate textures listeners would expect from a sound centered on the leader's valiha, a bamboo harp.

But Madagascar's acoustic music is also unusually sprightly, and Vali's arrangements wisely leave enough room for the melodies to breathe and avoid too many abrupt rhythm shifts. Rossy still reigns as Madagascar's premier artist, but "The Truth" is a lively taste of the island's acoustic side.*

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four (e x cellent).

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