Mamani Keita’s Electro-Bamako was one of the most original and captivating releases of 2002, the Paris-based Malian teaming her distinctive vocal style with Marc Minelli’s well-judged selection of programmed dance beats and jazzy sax breaks. On this long-overdue follow-up, she has once again found a European artist better known for his work outside the roots music world to help further cement her reputation for delivering sophisticated, catchy roots-based African pop music.
Nicolas Repac is the enabler this time, and the guitarist and arranger has brought some delicately nuanced instrumentation and discreet sampling to what is essentially a more organic and relaxed-sounding set of songs than those of its predecessor.
Although it’s clear that Yelema is a European production, West African instrumentation is very much in evidence. The dry sound of the plucked ngoni, whispers of Peule flute, and percussive elements such as balafon and djembé all serve to accentuate the Malian influence within Repac's subtly modern patchwork of sounds. The effect works best on up tempo numbers such as the opener Djekafo, where a bouncy reggae lilt is given a distinctly Malian swing, and Mali Denou, in which Repac interweaves jaunty rhythm guitar with a shimmering West African lead guitar figure. Much of the album benefits from the embellishment of female ensemble backing vocals, which contrast well with the almost childlike nasal tone of Keita's voice. Djama Nyemogo has a bluesy call-and-response between the two, and when it breaks into one of those irresistible groovy Afro-European workouts, it’s like listening to Rokia Traore and her band at their best. Kedide has a stirring, almost gospel-sounding chorus, with smooth, considered electronic samples from Repac and Mamani at her mellifluous best, all over a rolling balafon and drum back-beat.
The two slower numbers arguably don't work quite so well (Keita's voice seems designed to punch out short, repeated motifs rather than draw emotion out of a song), but that's a minor quibble because the remaining ten songs are worth more than the price of admission anyway.