Tuesday, June 16, 2009

VARIOUS - African Pearls: Guinea/Mali/Senegal (Syllart)/RAIL BAND - Belle Epoque 3: Diola (Stern's)

Continuing the excellent African Pearls series digging into Ibrama Sylla's Syliphone recordings from the Congo, Guinea, Mali and Senegal. This is the second raft of compilations covering the latter three countries, taking us into the 1970s and a move away from the state-funded infusion of traditional music (although it's still evident) into a more direct attempt to modernise sounds for the popular market.

The Guinea volume is culled from a number of sources, although as the title suggests chiefly the annual “Discotheque” compilations of the 1970s.
The artists featured were still nodding towards the authenticité cultural programme of President Sekou Touré but unafraid to follow US soul music and Nigerian Afrobeat trends with extended organ and electric guitar wig-outs.
This is the sound of boys playing with their new musical toys, although finessed by the seductive sound of punchy horns, ringing guitar and bright soulful vocals. Most of the greats are represented - Bembeya Jazz, Keletigui et Ses Tambourinis, Super Boiro Band, plus the slightly lesser known Horoya Band National, who are the real revelation. They only released one album and a handful of singles, but are represented by five tracks that shimmer and sway with warmth and joy. Warning: there are two or three overlaps with 2007’s excellent Aunthenticité compilation, but that still leaves over twenty songs to serve as a worthy follow up to that album.

Of the three countries, Senegal was the country to hold onto the Cuban influences the longest, but as seen on Musical Effervescence, its artists threw themselves with some sabar-drum slapping gusto into heavily localised idioms. Much of this compilation is the sound of urban Dakar, where we can hear the burgeoning mbalax scene, where Latin rhythms competed with dense, polyrhythmic grooves and wild keyboards, vibrant guitars and strident bursts of brass exemplified best by Super Diamono de Dakar and their impassioned vocalist Omar Pene, plus the various Star and Etoile bands out of which a young Youssou can be heard heralding a new era for Senegalese music. Orchestra Baobab were caught in the cross-fire, their languid, melodic Afro-Cuban here sounding wonderfully familiar and yet almost wilfully anachronistic in this context.
Modern, experimental, uniquely rooted in tradition but pan-continental in its appeal, the music of Mali in the 1970s was characterised by a move away from the polarisation of short, Afro-Latin songs and lengthy traditional praise songs into slow, winding bluesy songs drawing on the best of both approaches. Electric guitarists push the rhythm; saxophones and electric organ wind their way around kit drum; singers declaim, chant, shout; the ever-present horns remain defiantly off-kilter. Regional orchestras started to split, although they're still here in number (Orchestre Regional De Sikasso, Orchestre Regional De Mopti, Orchestre National de Badema) but Les Ambassadeurs and Rail Band have taken centre-stage, as well as the evergreen and long-standing Super Djata Band (some wild and wailing wah-wah guitar from them). Wide-ranging and expressive, this music has remained as vital and fresh-sounding as the day it was made.
This takes us neatly onto the final volume in the Rail Band retrospective that overlaps and follows on from the period covered by the African Pearls series. This takes us through the band’s most fractious days (from 1977 to 1983) where the loss of Mory Kanté and Djelimady Tounkara (although the latter returned to add his lyrical guitar work to much of the music here) affected the overall standard of output of a band with ever-changing personnel. You wouldn’t know it from the judiciously selected tracks here though, all of which show a band of exceptional ability and verve. Sometimes bright and swinging, other times dense and winding, always pushing the boundaries of what's possible and taking in the influences necessary to do that (Afrobeat, jazz, traditional Mande praise songs). True to form for this series, the compilers have given themselves licence to make the odd musical flashback, perhaps to keep the attraction of Salif Keita and Mory Kanté across all three volumes. This shouldn't detract from a consistently impressive vocal supporting cast - in particular, Lanfia Diabaté sounds hard, soulful and full of clarity throughout.
Ironic to think that all this great music from West Africa predated most of the western world’s interest in music from this region. Who will dare take a step into the next era, where Sylla and his like decamped to Paris to record albums that arguably fail to stand the test of time in quite the way these great moments do.

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