This stellar 2003 release on Smithsonian Folkways provides a wide array of traditional modern sounds from the west African nation of Mali, where the ages-old tradition of Mandingo griots has been fused with all kinds of external influences.
The kora, balafon, ngoni, talking drums and many other traditional Malian instruments are joined by guitars, drums, basses and other modern instruments with soulful and passionate vocals underpinning the 16 songs, all excellent.
Some names may be familiar, including the great guitarist Ali Farka Toure and the kora master Toumani Diabate, but the other musicians and bands on this compilation show just how musically rich Mali has been over the years, including the Bambara Blues genre that Toure has been known for.
It really is hard to pinpoint particular songs, because they are all so good and have their various notable elements, whether it is the rhythmic intensity, the fine melodies and harmonies in the vocals, with lyrics often hearkening to stories and legends from the country's history, the excellent kora work, skilled use of electric Western instrumentation, and so on.
Habib Koite and Bamada's "Nimato" is very impressive--percolating percussion, an insistent rhythm added to with guitar and bass, and a precise and well-produced sound by seasoned musicians playing in tune with one another. It is a great blend of traditional and modern elements.
Yoro Sidibe's "Noumou Koulouba" is all traditional and is sensational. Fine vocalizing by the leader and the great sound of the ngoni, or lute-like stringed instrument, propels this song with light percussion.
"Ya La" by Oumou Sangare is more pop-driven, but is totally infectious in its driving rhythms, horns, percussion, and title refrain, while the leader is an excellent singer.
The comes the gorgeous "Cheikhna Demba" by Toumani Diabate and Ballake Sissoko and its traditional evocation of one of the most engrossing of all instruments: the staggering kora.
These four songs, comprising only a quarter of this amazing album, showcase the varied elements of Malian music from purely traditional to a mixture of that with modern sounds, but all brought about in a way that is so well done.
There is so much more, though, including Abdoulaye Diabate's masterful vocals on "Fakoli", the guitar work and plantive singing on "Tessalit" by the duo Tinariwen, the call-and-response chanting and percussion on "Iya Heniya" by Tartit, and so on. The rapping on "Pirates" is complemented by traditional stringed instruments and has a topical lyric blasting pirated music to boot.
The liner notes are full of great information about Malian music, the features performers, and the songs. There is a good grounding here for understanding just how vital and alive this music really is.
Thanks to compiler Jon Kertzer, Banning Eyre for his notes,the great Smithsonian Folkways label and, of course, these superior musicians for a memorable recording!