Sunday, October 18, 2009

KANDIA KOUYATE - Ngara (Syllart)

There’s no more befitting a description than ngara, “master Jeli”, for the force of musical presence that is Kandia Kouyaté, although her rich, booming voice and domineering position as one of Mali’s leading griots suffered a setback five years ago when she suffered a stroke. This re-release of some of her older recordings underlines the impact she made prior to her unfortunate bout of ill-health.

The first five of the seven tracks here were recorded in Paris in 1999 and presaged her remarkable Biriko album (released three years later) in their stripped back configuration of balafon, ngoni, percussion and vocals. Two of the tracks – Douwawou and Doninke – originally appeared on the singer’s Kita Kan album, standing out as enduring pearls on an uneven album containing a number of over-ambitious arrangements.

Kandia never sounded better than on these less cluttered recordings – her voice is expressive, steeped in history and lightly sanded by experience and emotion but with a strong sense of melody when set against a sweetened, uplifting choir of female backing vocals (an arrangement pioneered by Kandia, and taken for granted now).

And there’s lots of space for the exemplary musicians (Moriba Keita on ngoni is in supreme form) in the sparse, echoing chamber-style arrangements. Hypnotic stuff.

In addition to those five entrancing tracks, there are two lo-fi recordings presumably taken straight off two of the many cassette tapes Kandia Kouyaté has recorded over the years. Sarama is a grainy recording made in Abidjan back in 1984 that’s nevertheless full of charged emotion, despite the slightly incongruous passages of saxophone that weave in and out of balafon, ngoni and some girlish backing harmonies. We are taken back further to Bamako circa 1981 for the fourteen-minute closing track, Yo Lele, where Kandia’s voice is high, bold, more improvisatory and less compromising than on later recordings.

It is said by some that you really need to understand Kandia Kouyaté’s words to fully appreciate her power, as they carry a resonance and message like no other. Maybe so, but the voice at its best - as it was in this period - speaks volumes enough to this listener.

This review first appeared in fRoots magazine

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