A slightly new angle on the familiar theme of blending West African music with Afro-Cuban and Latin styles. Hank Jones’s excellent Sarala and Dee Dee Bridgewater’s mostly successful Red Earth are probably the closest touchstones for this joyfully jazzy attack on Mande music, and Toumani Diabate’s Symmetric Orchestra is another touchstone for the marrying of traditional Malian styles with western jazz-derived sounds.
It’s Toumani’s brother Madou Sidiki Diabate who provides the kora fills for Mali Latino, with compatriot Ahmed Fofana on balafon and vocals, with Alex Wilson’s piano and Hammond organ completing a trio that forms the core of an album that veers between studied kora-jazz and rollicking, horn-driven dance numbers. It’s the big-band Bamako-meets-NY moments that are bound to draw most focus, where the trio are joined by various Malian guest vocalists (Doussouba Diabaté, Kandia Kouyaté and more) whilst bass, congas and all manner of brass instruments combine for some rip-roaring Mande-salsa. Opener Donkan is a fine example of this, the kora and balafon riffing between thick blasts of brass, and Bamako 2000 invokes 70s Latin soul, the watery warblings of Wilson’s Hammond organ to the fore (a marmite instrument if ever there was one) and balafon fitting snugly to the arrangement beneath swaying Mande harmonies.
Kansala is perhaps the best of the more reflective tracks, a showcase for Diabaté’s darting melodies, and Remercier Les Travaillers stops the album in its tracks to pay due respect to Kandia Kouyaté’s magnificence (presumably recorded some time before her recent bout of ill-health). Wilson’s piano is suitably respectful here, duetting tenderly with Diabaté kora.
However, experimental albums such as this usually have off-moments, and some of the kitchen-sink salsa moments on tracks like Ankaben can get wearing. And the sparse three-piece Voyage has some great moments but is spoilt by unnecessarily cocktail-bar piano effects from Wilson.
Not perfect by any means then, but on the whole the funky approach and spirit just about see Mali Latino through.