Tuesday, June 16, 2009

KASSE MADY DIABATE - Manden Djeli Kan (Universal)/ADBOULAYE "DJOSS" DIABATE - Sara (Completely Nuts)

Kassé Mady Diabaté’s album releases tend to reflect his cameos as guest vocalist with Malian groups such as the Symmetric Orchestra and the Mandekalou ensemble, as well as his appearances on landmark world music albums such as Songhai and Kulanjan. Quite content to stand on the sidelines while others take centre-stage, his all-too-brief moments in the spotlight ooze calm authority and a veteran's sense of his place in the musical scheme of things.
Last time he did it with his own album was in 2003 when the back-to-roots affair Kassé Kassi garnered a Grammy nomination, and plaudits a-plenty surely await Manden Djeli Kan, its equally accomplished follow-up.
Manden Djeli Kan is not as resolutely traditional as its predecessor, but the instrumental core remains acoustic. Moriba Koita’s florid ngoni style is the centre - light, melodic, almost kora-like at times - with guitarist Fantamady Kouyaté an ever-present complement. Busy mid-tempo percussion sits high in the mix, adding a rhythmic hardness not always apparent on modern Malian albums rooted in tradition; and bolon, balafon, and diligently placed electric guitar and bass complete the instrumental picture, with a triumvirate of female backing singers adding melodic elasticity throughout.
And over, around and above it all, there's that satin-smooth voice - confident, authoritative, and almost faultlessly spotless in tone. There's an economy to Kassé Mady's delivery - he doesn't hit extremes, even when declamatory is called for. It's all delivered with restraint, a difficult trick to pull off without sounding bland, but something he’s been doing with consummate brilliance since the 1970s.
Highlights include the rolling, sensual opener Bandja, the sparse, percussion-led Allah Doundé and the slow, unfolding Nankoumandjian, which features Toumani Diabaté on kora.
The only bum note is the ill-advised attempt to add 'modern' flourishes of jazzed up electric guitar and watery Hammond organ, although the only number that gets completely submerged in those effects is Kaninba. Skip past that track, and these occasional mild instrumental transgressions are forgivable enough.
Indeed, it all adds a certain charm to an album with a pleasingly unfussy, naturalistic feel.
Abdoulaye "Djoss" Diabaté is Kasse Mady's New York-based brother (Banning Eyre describes him as the best African singer operating in the US). Abdoulaye has a similar vocal style to his brother but with a marginally rougher edge and thinner tone, leaving him slightly lower on the goose-pimple raising scale. But we’re talking very high standards here, and when he really lets go the results are similarly clear and true. His vocals are framed by a deft arrangement of acoustic instrumentation (balafon, kora, ringing acoustic guitars and percussion) played by the group of Americans and ex-pat Canadians and West Africans that also comprise much of Fula Flute. And he's aided - and every so often outclassed by - jalimuso Mai Kouyaté, a powerful, strident female singer from Guinea.
With a pleasantly relaxed production, Abdoulaye's voice clear as a bell and Peter Fand rumbling away on bass, these eight evolving, involving acoustic praise songs might be performed by a disparate band of nationalities, but it’s utterly convincing in its evocation of the relaxed musical empathy that is behind the best West African traditional music. And the title-track, an effervescent ten-minute unfolding of the Mande classic Sara, is about as good as anything I've heard out of West Africa this year.


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