Following on from the universally-fêted first volume in the African Pearls series (Congo: Rumba on the River), come two more absorbing, wide-ranging, arguably less accessible but ultimately equally rewarding collections from the golden age of African popular music.
Given the inextricable link between music and the independence movement across Africa, Cultural Revolution could be a description for the whole series, although Guinea’s first President Sekou Touré was undoubtedly a major driving force behind the cultural changes on the continent. The first CD from the Guinean compilation traces the growing sophistication of the traditional artists encouraged by Touré’s Government, best illustrated by the development of the influential Sory Kandia Kouyaté. Nina (with Ballets Africains), recorded in 1957 just after the President had invited Kouyaté to the capital Conakry, is charming enough. But Souaressi (recorded thirteen years later) is in a different league, Kouyaté's pure, rich vocals and brightly bucolic guitar picking delivering a captivating shot of West African blues. Elsewhere, acoustic guitar interplay doesn't come much more refined than the two tunes by African Virtuoses, which are a lush marriage of flamenco and Lusaphone styles, with just a dash of Palm Wine for added spice. CD Two opens with the ringing guitars and rousing horns of Bembeya Jazz National, blasting out one of the great epoch-marking African songs, Armée Guinéenne. The collection continues in that vein through a host of state-supported ensembles, from the trailblazing Horoya Band National through to the epic understated splendour of Balla et Ses Balladins.
With recordings stretching from the late ‘50s to the early ‘80s, the title One Day on Radio Mali is something of a misnomer, although the origins of most of the tracks are albums licensed to Ibrahim Sylla by the Malian Government, and include recordings of regional artists for national radio as well as the iconic state-sponsored orchestras. CD One is again largely made up of traditional music, ranging from sparkling kora standards by the likes of Sidiki Diabaté and Batrou Sekou Kouyaté, through sparse ngoni-accompanied ballads such as the 1968 classic Miniyamba by the magisterial Fanta Damba, to small ensemble pieces in the various regional folkloric styles. The second CD is dominated by some of the country’s prominent electric guitar and brass-led orchestras from the early post-colonial era, including Salif Keita’s Les Ambassadeurs, Rail Band and Orchestra National ‘A’ (under the direction of the legendary balafon player Keletigui Diabaté). A 1978 version of Tiramakan by the Badema National Orchestra is a mesmerising eleven-minute meander through all that is great about this kind of music - gloriously off-centre horns, expertly economical lead guitar lines, a gratifyingly relaxed back-beat and a stirring vocal from Kasse Mady Diabaté at his lucid, declamatory best. Sheer bliss.
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