Sunday, May 14, 2006
It's the week of Ali Farka Touré's death, and it seems that everyone has an anecdote about the great man, although Nuru Kane's is more enviable than most. Nuru's friend and musical partner Thierry Fournel had played a demo tape of Kane's Bayefall Gnawa band to Amadou and Mariam, leading to the group making a late, unexpected and hugely popular appearance at 2004's Festival in the Desert in Mali. Nuru: "There was a great ambiance - it seemed that everyone there was a musician, we were jamming every day. When we finished our gig, Ali Farka Touré came to our tent and said 'you and me, we are doing the same thing - trance and African blues'. I said 'thank you, thank you very much!' That is a great memory for me."
Fear not dear reader, the ‘trance’ referred to is not the gloopy ‘chillout’ music favoured by club-goers as they come off their chemical high, but that of the uplifting Gnawa ceremony called derdeba, designed to heal the sick or remove evil spirits.
In Nuru's case, that trance sound comes from the singer's visit to Morocco in 1999. Until then he'd played bass guitar in his birthplace in the Medina district of Dakar in Senegal, and subsequently when he moved to Paris, in bands that mixed modern Senegalese and European styles. But a chance meeting whilst visiting the market in the bustling Djemaa el-Fna square in Marrakech led to a change of direction that has resulted in a unique marriage of West and North African acoustic sounds. All the traditional instruments that were being played there were familiar to Kane, except one. "I heard one man, called Mahjoub, playing the guimbri (a three-stringed acoustic bass) and asked him if he would help me to learn to play it. He said yes, and so he became my master."
On his return to Paris, Kane continued to practice the guimbri, and became the only artist in the French capital to play gnawa in what he calls 'the Senegalese way.' "The instrument comes from the Maghreb countries of Morocco and Southern Algeria, and although Moroccans arrive in France and play gnawa music, they are amazed when I tell them that their ancestors came from West Africa and I am taking the instrument back to its Senegalese roots."
If they find that surprising, I wonder what they would make of the location for the recording of his recent captivating CD, Sigil. How did a city-dwelling Francophone African come to record his album in a cottage that doubles as a timber workshop-cum-recording studio in the bucolic surroundings of the rolling hills of the Scottish Borders? It turns out that Kane's manager Pete Holden played Nuru some music by Mouth Music's Martin Swan and the astute singer detected a kindred spirit: "I said: 'Who is this man? His vision is like the Bayefall Gnawa Band.' Within a day, I had decided we must have him as producer. And then, to see Martin’s house, the land, it was like my song Djoloff, Djoloff - for the city man to learn how to appreciate time, he must go far from the city where it is too easy to have everything straight away."
It’s easy to discern the rewards from this approach when you listen to the CD. There is an organic, spontaneous feel to it, particularly on the songs that were effectively recorded in one take, such as the blues-inflected ballad Goreé (about the infamous slave island off the Senegalese coast) and mournful Talibe. Indeed, many of the tracks contain what were initially guide vocals that were retained at the insistence of the producer and members of the band, much to the Senegalese’s initial chagrin: "I wanted to add extra vocal layers in a recording studio in Paris, but my band members said no, no, no, no! Keep it as it is - these vocals are great! They show people what we are like in our concerts. So, eventually I agreed and we kept the original vocals."
But despite the appeal of his recorded work, my feeling is that Nuru Kane and his entourage are most likely to be at home on the gig and festival circuit, with Kane’s natural charisma and striking good looks liable to win over new fans wherever they play. Live, the band’s set-up has been adapted to great effect. Gone is any hint of electric guitar, and the guimbri is joined by calabash, darbouka and acoustic guitar, with the electrifying kora work of Kadialy Kouyaté a more than adequate replacement for the ngoni parts on the CD. They put on an energizing and stimulating show, many of the songs, like the Afro-funky Diarama, becoming extended jams that manage to connect with and engage the audience rather than erect a barrier in front of them as so many groups do when they are so obviously enjoying themselves.
It’s a marriage of European, traditional and Oriental styles, perfectly fitting the song’s themes of inclusiveness, respect for others, appreciation of history and hope for the future. All of which is informed by the peace-loving philosophy of the West African Baye Fall branch of Islam, which numbers fellow Senegalese singer Cheikh Lô as well as Kane among its dreadlocked, patchwork clothes-wearing adherents. The listener just can't help but be drawn into such a seductive mix. As Nuru himself says, "my music is mostly acoustic but I hope the results are electric." Make sure you catch some of that electricity if you can.