For three decades and more, Bako Dagnon has stood imperiously over the music scene in Mali as a past member of the influential Ensemble Instrumental du Mali, fixture on the wedding party circuit, mentor to celebrated singers such as Kandia Kouyaté, and cultural guru to the late Ali Farka Touré.
All of which makes it slightly mystifying that she's remained relatively unheralded outside of West Africa, with none of her previous five solo albums seeing the light of day outside her native country.
Her commanding appearances on the Ibrahima Sylla-produced Mandekalou recordings went some way towards addressing that oversight, and that correction continues on this impressive showcase of songs covering the full history of Bako's career, recorded last year by Sylla and stalwarts of the legendary Bogolan studios of Bamako, François Bréant and Yves Wernert.
Bako's no untarnished siren like a Rokia Traore, nor does she possess the soulful tone of an Oumou Sangare, but her rough-hewn voice is the perfect instrument for these part-sung, part-spoken narratives, all delivered across a pulsing Mandé groove. Malian session musician mainstay Mama Sissokho and cohort Fantamady Kouyaté are the acoustic guitar-playing hub around which revolve the rest of the ensemble, and there's an mature control in Dagnon's vocals that cuts through the serene ensemble playing and sweet female harmonies (including those of Hadja Kouyaté, another singer well overdue further exposure). On the difficult-to-get-past Donsoké, a melodic, interweaving repeat-play of an opening song, we get the full range, from talkative through to declamatory (Kerfala Konte guests beautifully on this track), and there's passion in the voice too, at times, most notably when working against a dramatic string arrangement on Salimou (tunes are prudently coloured by violins, flute and wafts of bluesy harmonica throughout the album) and when driving against rousing female harmonies on Bélébélé, a song that reaches all the way back to the start of Bako's career in 1972. Every song's a gem, in fact, and the lady delivers them all with understated authority, aided by a sterling backing band and production team. Long-justified and well-overdue recognition awaits.
UK distribution via Discovery Records
This review first appeared in fRoots magazine.