VA: Mali Blues
Gruenrekorder Sound Art Series

A film and a soundtrack, Mali Blues travels to the heart of West Africa to introduce us to its rich musical culture and four artists in particular, global star-in-the-making Fatoumata Diawara, ngoni player and traditional Griot Bassekou Kouyaté, Malian rapper Master Soumy, and Tuareg musician Ahmed Ag Kaedi. Director Lutz Gregor's 2016 documentary follows Diawara (known as Fatou) who, having fled Mali as a young woman to escape an arranged marriage, is seen preparing for her first-ever concert performance in the southern Mali city of Ségou at the Festival of the Niger in 2015. In addition to documenting her concert tour, the film shows her meeting with Ahmed Ag Kaedi, who fled his desert home for a different reason: fundamentalists threatening to cut off his fingers. Not only have individuals been threatened but so too has the entire musical heritage of Mali: in 2012, a ban was instituted by radical Islamists that saw radio stations destroyed and musicians forced into exile.

If Diawara is the ‘star' of the documentary, so too does she stand out on the soundtrack; in that regard, it doesn't surprise that she not only appears first but does so with the recording's most infectious song, the irresistibly hummable “Sowa.” Her acrobatically smooth vocal delivery is certainly a major part of the song's appeal, but its lilting swing and melodic hooks bolster its allure—the kind of AfroPop you want to revisit the moment it's over; also strong is “Kanou,” whose breezy lilt works a hint of João Gilberto-styled bossa nova into its African swing. Even without visuals, Diawara's radiance shines through all four of her contributions, the opener especially, and the material certainly suggests she has the potential to become a major international star.

A bluesier side of Mali's music arises during Bassekou Kouyaté and his band Ngoni ba's “Desert Nianafing” when the tune features both Kouyaté's centuries-old ngoni string instrument (said to be a precursor of the banjo) and the controlled wail of Ahmed Ag Kaedi's guitar; Kouyaté's ancient stringed instrument is more prominent in “Wagadou,” though one's attention is as much drawn to the song's impassioned vocal performances. Master Soumy (Ismaëla Doucouré) clearly has his ears close to the ground, at least insofar as “Explique Moi Ton Islam,” with its vague echoes of “Gangsta's Paradise,” is representative of the rap singer's style.

On the soundtrack, Diawara is represented by four songs, Kouyate three, Soumy two, Samba Touré one, and Ahmed Ag Kaedi three (the songs written by him but, as credited, performed by Amanar de Kidal); three of the thirteen pieces are live tracks, including an eleven-minute bonus, “Tumastin,” a loping rouser performed by Amanar de Kidal and the Omniversal Earkestra. Though the singing isn't in English, the soundtrack is easy on Western ears, especially when the songs are rhythmically driven, prominently feature guitars, horns, synthesizers, and drums, and are often stylistically reminiscent of Western styles such as blues, rock, and hip-hop.

May 2017