Four albums from West Africa that all stand as reasonable albums in their own right but all of which come with a warning of inconsistency and/or a tendency to pan-African wallpaperism.
Malian Idrissa Soumaoro’s release is arguably the most disappointing of the four because all the components of a top-notch recording seem in place. It’s the most ‘rooted’ of the albums, Soumaoro is a fine guitarist who possesses a sumptuous voice pitched somewhere between Issa Bagayogo and Kasse Made Diabate, he’s backed by sweet female harmonies and is supported by a fine array of musicians.
Bèrèbèrè is the highlight - perhaps unsurprising given the presence of the late Ali Farka Touré - a rolling blues with the rustic clang of electric guitar and winding njarka violin imbuing the vocalists with a controlled, entrancing energy. There’s more similar to this, but also a number of truly dreadful ballads, one or two almost (but not quite) rescued by some Papa Noel-inspired Latin rhythm, and too much in the way of stomping bar-blues guitar. Brilliant in places (Tilénén Ya shows that Idrissa can do electric-blues restraint) but at best patchy overall, Djitoumou is one to check out in its entirety on Spotify or similar before purchasing based on hearing its better moments.
Cote D’Ivorean chanteuse Dobet Gnahoré continues to develop her smooth and inclusive West Africanised pop on her third album, backed by a tight, standard pop/rock setup that dresses Dobet’s striking vocals in all manner of Afro-European musical attire. When it works – as on the soukous guitar of Evigne or Cote D’Ivoire’s uplifting brassy patriotism – Gnahoré offers a genuine threat to Angelique Kidjo’s crown as the queen of pan-African soul. And that voice – strong, rangy, full of fire and beauty – can’t fail to impress, although there’s always a danger of the all-things-to-all-people approach resulting in over-engineered arrangements, resulting in a few too many moments where the strive to touch all crossover bases leads to bland tunes with unimaginative squared-off drumming only briefly enlivened by sporadic token Afro wigouts. And that becomes somewhat formulaic after a while, leaving Djekpa La You deserving of cautious recommendation only.
Late-bloomer Victor Démé provided one of the feel-good stories of 2008. After years of obscurity, the forty-something from Burkina Faso’s shoestring debut album and moving live appearances brought plaudits and a more-than-modest fame (in France at least) that has transformed the lives of those around him. It’s probably a bit churlish, then, for some of us admit that the charms of that debut release largely passed us by in what felt like a samey blend of mid-tempo acoustica and too-smooth crooning. It’s a relief, then, to report that the follow-up feels a lot more like the real deal. Victor has a silky, aged voice in the mould of Boubacar Traoré which contrasts well with his bouncy picking guitar style. And on Deli that basic template is filled out by kora, violin, some sparky ensemble vocal arrangements and a number of funky calabash-coloured mid-to-up-tempo numbers. It still gets a tad wishy-washy in places, making the track-count of sixteen a bit burdensome, but pick out any one of the best ten or so tracks here and you begin to see what the fuss was about. Not half bad.
Last but by no means least comes the debut international release by former guitarist and hip-hopper Carlou D, a follower of the Baay Fall group like his compatriot Cheikh Lô and with a similar combination of good, strong vocals (with some impressive falsetto thrown in) and a loose and funky mix of mbalax, ngoni and acoustic guitar. Kora and sax lend variety, and there’s a nice hint of Cuban rhythm in places. The songs do tend to blend together somewhat however, and some of the rather bland balladeering makes the “Senegal’s next great musical export” publicity puff seem a bit over the top. But there are worse albums you could put on as background to the weekend chores. A promising start.