Aly Keïta is a virtuoso balafon player from the Ivory Coast with an expressive, relaxed approach to playing that cries out to be framed by musicians and singers sympathetic to the sound he makes, and that is exactly what the Germany-based percussionist has achieved on this impressively varied album of original songs.
Guitar, bass, drums and a funky brass section are deployed to fill out songs of everyday African life, the tunes heavily influenced by the jazz styles to which Keïta has been exposed in Europe (with ensembles such as Trio Ivoire), but which contain a joyful swing that keeps the music firmly rooted in his native West Africa.
The highlight is the appearance of fellow-Ivorian Dobet Gnahoré as vocalist on five of the thirteen numbers. The former Awards For World Music nominee has a rich, soulful voice (similar at times to Malian Rokia Traore) that she revels in trading with Keïta’s improvisations. On Akan - the only track featuring electric guitar, and with a lovely buzzy balafon sound throughout - Gnahoré is at her wide-ranging best, sweeping from a deep and moody croon to a playful, childlike purr. And on the album’s highlight - the gorgeously atmospheric paen to Aly‘s grandmother, Forêt Sacrée - Gnahoré’s pleading vocals make for an emotive contrast to Keïta’s flowing melodies.
The rest of the album is largely made up of instrumentals, some designed to show off the leader’s abilities, others being fuller band arrangements. Made in C.F.P.M is a particular highlight, with brass-blowing brothers Martial and Magloire Ahouandjinou deservedly taking centre stage on an extended funk workout.
Akwaba Iniséné is a consistently engaging album - up-tempo, free-flowing, full of catchy tunes and hip-swinging rhythms, with that magical balafon sound dancing in and out of the grooves to deliver a deliciously Afro-funky brew.
This review first appeared in fRoots magazine.