Way Out West

Five new records from West Africa explore their roots with surprising results.

West Africa now faces east. Musicians from Senegal, from Mali, from Gambia all cultivate their Islamic roots rather than courting their American descendents—not, perhaps, a sure indicator that U.S. cultural capital is waning worldwide, but certainly evidence that the singular market-ratified definition of griots as embryonic bluesmen, which encouraged African guitarists to play up their pentatonic affinities with the Delta at the expense of exploring their music's Arabic underpinnings, no longer satisfies many African stars. When Toumani Diabate (whose brilliant Kulanjan with Taj Mahal proved the merits of highlighting differences in tradition) and Ali Farka Toure (whose Ry Cooder collaboration stumbled both rhythmically and ethnomusicologically) team up for as unbluesy a backward glance at Malian tradition as In the Heart of the Moon (World Circuit), something's afoot.

Once again, Youssou N'Dour has positioned himself as the vanguard: Egypt, his collaboration with that Arab nation's Fathy Salama Orchestra, released last year, triumphed both as a gesture and a piece of music. And once again, Thione Seck, who began his similarly themed Orientation in 1999 and finished in 2002 (it's just out domestically on Stern's Africa), has been overshadowed, just as when the two were rivals in the lively Dakar scene of the late '70s and early '80s. Though they share the distinctive muezzin keen that typically inflects Senegalese vocals, Seck has always more clearly echoed eastern tones, and his boyhood Bollywood fascination and dad's collection of Oum Khalthoum LPs led him to integrate Arab modality into his mbalax recordings years ago. While Seck can't outsing the master (to my ears, if not to some others'), he can sometimes outwrite him, resurrecting oldies such as "Djirim" and especially "Ballago," in which the upward swoop of one set of beautiful female backing vocals is answered by the graceful downward coast of another set. Orientation is rarely as lovely as Egypt, but from the blocky horns shifting around the melody on "Doom" to the sprightly flute dancing above "Manmignoul," its pan- cultural taste is more wide-ranging.

The ornate guitar that opens "Fanta Bourama," the lead track on Djelimady Tounkara's Solon Kono (Marabi), swirls eastward as well. Yet before he's anything, Tounkara is a virtuoso, fleet of finger and curious to see where his improvisations will lead—though he's also enough of showman to know what's too showy for his audience, which has allowed him to shepherd the Super Rail Band through the vagaries of Bamako taste for so many years. Solon Kono bustles about a little more busily than Tounkara's elegant 2001 disc Sigui, on which the guitar wended in circular patterns, but here his curlicues spiral outward rather than settling for repetition. Several women, including Tounkara's daughter, chime in on vocals, sometimes as a call and response, sometimes carrying on a countermelody of their own, for a more convivial, social feel than Segui.

West Africa has long been stingy with new stars, leaving critics little to celebrate beyond another veteran's return to form. That partly explains the excitement that surrounds Introducing Daby Balde (Riverboat/World Circuit) in certain sectors. The rest of the explanation: Daby Balde is the real deal, warmly delivering the standard praise songs and moral chidings atop sharp acoustic settings. (And at 36, he's hardly a kid.) He covers all the bases, even casting his loveliest melody in two incarnations ("Waino Blues" and the more traditional "Mido Waino"), and you barely notice the accordion and violin at first, or even the gentle sax Christian Derneville slips into "Mbadi." Nor can you quite place the feel of that accompaniment: The liner notes, mentioning the history of the Casamance region Balde makes his home, call the feel Portuguese, while critic Robert Christgau more reasonably suggests a Balkan resemblance. I'd move the comparison even further east, to hear similarities with the Asiatic stuff the Gypsies carted into both Eastern Europe and Iberia.

But maybe that's just how this trend has retrained my ears. Even on Kongo Magni (World Village), the new album by the undeniably bluesy Boubacar Traore, I hear intimations of the Middle East—maybe that's just Traore's increasing focus on "tone colour," as referenced on the album sleeve. But though Vincent Bucher pulls out some hardy train imitations for "Horonia," his harmonica notes are notably unbent throughout "Djonkana," his tone more akin to the accordion of Regis Gizavo (on "Kanou") than to Junior Wells' harp. And "Kar Kar," a cleanly picked and blown duet between Bucher and Traore, is what an infant's mobile sounds like in utopia.

Traore's stolid yet genial melancholy, which has felt timeless in the past, now sounds as though it stretches backward, to root him in the unrootedness of history. And yet, West Africa is in many ways as distant from the contemporary Arab world as it is from American slave culture. Notably, the three Sufi variants of Senegalese Islam are too indigenous and nationalist to inculcate Arab sentiment. Both N'Dour and Seck belong to the commerce-minded mouride sect, members of which quite literally don't look east—they rank the Senegalese city of Touba over Mecca, and some accuse them of placing hometown prophet Amadou Bamba above Muhammad. Just as the blues was not birthed solely by West African music, so were the traditions of Senegal and Mali not clearly transferred from the east. What's most rewarding about all of these discs is that the more they explore the traditions they spring from, the more they spotlight how far from those traditions the music has come.

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