AMI KOITA Cantos 079.0025.020
LES AMBASSADEURS feat. SALIF KEITA Cantos 079.0014.020
LE RAIL BAND feat. MORY KANTE Cantos 079.0023.020
BOUBACAR TRAORE Cantos 079.0026.020
BEMBEYA JAZZ NATIONAL Cantos 079.0009.020
ORCHESTRA BAOBAB Cantos 079.0024.020
ISMAEL LO Cantos 079.0013.020
Those were the days. In the early knockings of the explosion of interest in African music a quarter of a century or so ago, browsers could pick up just about any African cassette or LP that had an interesting looking cover, in the confident expectation of being impressed by the exciting sounds contained therein.One of the elements to look out for in this musical luck dip was the name of producer Ibrahima Sylla and his label, Syllart. His work is gradually being made available to a whole new audience on CD, and this modestly packaged mid-price series covers some of the key players on the West African scene in the '70s and '80s (expect no frills with the packaging, just plain white sleeves and a brief résumé of the artists covered). To Mali first, and Ami Koita still sounds brassy and seductive, with that big, declamatory voice echoing against a spare instrumental balafon and guitar backing, with just the occasional Western-style drumbeat hinting at the modernisation to come. Legend has it that she was the inspiration behind The Rail Band's mighty Mandjou (unfortunately not featured in this series), which was later given its definitive treatment by Les Ambassadeurs, after Salif Keita's defection from their great rivals. Keita's leaving afforded Mory Kanté the opportunity to stake a claim as a great band leader in The Rail Band, and the CDs dedicated to the two bands at the point the great men were going head-to-head, are an interesting contrast. Recorded (I guess) in the mid-'70s, The Rail Band sound was still tinged with the remnants of the Latin flavours that dominated the African music scene in the '60s. But with the legendary Djelimady Tounkara on lead guitar and the odd hint of rock and Afrobeat thrown in, theirs is asinuous, funky match for the powerhouse rock sound of Les Ambassadeurs. Djougouya by the latter is the standout track here, a dense, snaking fusion of jazz, rock, Latin and African built on that voice, a bubbling bass line and Kante Manfila's weaving lead guitar lines. The result overall: a score draw, and although neither collection quite catches the ensembles at their absolute peak, they are essential listening for the connoisseur. In contrast to those big bands, blues troubadour Boubacar Traore was ploughing a lone furrow - just him, his smoky vocals and those heartfelt acoustic guitar ballads that illuminated his supreme début LP, Mariama, many of which are featured on his highly recommended selection. Meanwhile, over in Guinea, Bembeya Jazz - seemingly past the peak of their Government-sponsored fame - were brought back to life by the golden-voiced prodigy Sékouba Bambino Diabaté. The songs gathered on their collection (such as the original incarnation of the breathless Sabou) resonate with the Afro-jazz dance vibe that underpinned their exhilarating revival in recent years. Senegal's Orchestra Baobab have also made a recent come-back, and as good as the loping, Afro-Cuban grooves are here, there's a considerable overlap with last year's A Night at Club Baobab release. The latter has to be preferred even at a few quid more, due to the murkiness of the sound on the Cantos collection. But, oh for some of that murk on the final collection on offer. One reason for the rapid decline in fortunes for Ochestra Baobab was the modern mbalax, rock and reggae-infused sound of bands such as Super Diamono de Dakar, whose Ismael Lo went to Paris in the mid-'80s during the height of the Syllart modern recording boom. But time hasn't been kind to this cross-section of cuts from the early albums he recorded there. Diawar is a decent enough mbalax track, but elsewhere his trademark beautiful croon and some decent tunes are swamped by over-production - leaden programmed drums,too-lush keyboard sounds and a general suffocating mood of trying too hardto cross over. To top it all, there's surprisingly no place for the irresistible mbalax-meets-pop track, Jelebi. Approach this one with extreme caution.