A swiveling, downward guitar lick begins “Bon Koum” from Sahel Folk, the second disc from Songhai bluesman Sidi Touré. Its contours are geometrically
precise and sharply delineated against deep silence. Yet listen harder and the contours begin to bend
and shimmer in the desert heat. Open spaces appear amid carefully plotted
phrases, and antic falsetto runs skitter across the free spaces. Touré’s voice,
quietly resonant and full of shadows, booms up out of the picking, a
counterpart that rises where the guitar riff falls. The music is full of taut contradictions,
disciplined rhythms and wild flights of fancy, deep serenity and palpable
longing, the heat of rapid picking alongside unhurried, contemplative cool.
Sidi Touré comes from the same North Malian tradition as
Salif Keita and Ali Farka Touré (the two are apparently not closely related), a
tradition based on voice, various kinds of acoustic guitars and hand percussion
which sounds, at least to the non-expert, like a cousin to Delta blues. Raised
in an aristocratic family, he pursued music despite his family’s objections,
making his own guitars and singing on the sly. He joined the Songhai Stars, a
regional orchestra, as a teenager and toured with them extensively, gradually
making a regional, then national, name for himself. He was one of the first to
sing in his native Songhai language and to tour Songhai homelands in northern Mali and Niger.
Touré has been successful enough in Mali that he almost
certainly had access to professional studio production, but he decided against
it for Sahel Folk, which was recorded
very simply in Touré’s sister’s home, a two-day session bringing together Touré
and a half dozen of his Songhai Stars
compatriots. The songs are stripped down to the barest essentials, usually just
one or two acoustic guitars and a variety of voices. The playing is effortless, light and joyful,
tethered to rhythms that are felt rather than pounded out, but no less
insistent for it.
In the long “Taray Kongo” for instance, two guitars – one
Touré’s and conventional the other, a kutigui and played by Jambala Maiga –
engage in intricate exchanges of ideas at near bluegrass speed (the kutigui
sounds a bit like a banjo), yet nonetheless stay tethered to a strong beat. There’s
a musical fillip at the end of every long vocal phrase that slots exactly into
its space, like a nail driving in to close the measure.
And yet for all that regularity, there’s a wildness embedded
in these songs, whether in Jiba Touré’s ululating vocal counterpart in lucid,
lovely “Adema,” or the skittery, flamenco-speed improvisation at the beginning
of “Sinji.” The careful foundation makes these flights of bravado possible,
gives them a spot to leap off from and ensures a safe and lovely place to land
when they return.
One of the real conundrums of this disc is how anything that
sounds this warm and casual and relaxed could also be so exacting. Yet there it
is. It’s both and all the better for it.
DOWNLOAD: “Bon Koum” “Taray Kongo” JENNIFER KELLY