Thrill Jockey collects the early works of Sorry Bamba, one
pre-eminent post-colonial bandleaders, in this first of two planned
installments. The compilation, put together by Bamba himself, as well as Extra
Golden’s Alex Minoff and Ian Eagelson, spans the artist’s years with the Kanaga
Orchestra. During this period, from the mid- to late-1970s, in a series of
government-sponsored biennial competitions, Bamba and his orchestra re-framed
traditional Malian music in electrified (and occasionally electrifying) terms.
Culture is always political, but never more so than when a
new republic is establishing its own identity after many years of foreign rule.
Sorry Bamba emerged as an artist during the fertile years of the late 1960s and
early 1970s, when Mali’s
first president, Modibo Keita, began to promote his country’s music through
concerts and competitions. Sorry Bamba thrived in this environment by being
more than a musician, or even a conductor. His tasks – preserving culture,
bringing arcane traditions into the modern era, demonstrating the value of
indigenous music and dance – had political, as well as artistic, overtones. He was, for instance, one of the first to
popularize the music and dance of the Dogon people, a little-understood tribe
living in the cliffs and caves around Mopti, who were known for elaborate
masked funeral dances, and he also incorporated traditions from the Peul people.
So, while Sorry Bamba’s music had undeniable physical appeal – his biggest hit,
“Yayoroba”, was a song about women with unusually large posteriors – it was also a form of propaganda or at least
a shoring up of national identity.
Yet if government support influenced Sorry Bamba’s subject
matter, it also gave him the resources to work on a large scale. Sorry Bamba
presided over big bands in the 1970s, enabling intricate, multi-person
percussive interplay, large brass and horn sections, keyboards, electric guitar
and bass, as well as traditional instruments. “Poory,” Bamba’s re-imagination
of a traditional drinking song, turns into an extended, multi-parted
crazy-quilt of an instrumental reverie, as trombones, trumpets, drums, singers
and organs all take their turn. The layering of European and African sounds
sometimes produces fleeting epiphanies. Sorry Bamba switches to his first
instrument, flute, for “Astan Kelly” giving the cut a quick Western jazz-fusion
lift in the breaks.
The jazz instrumentation also reinforced a message of
modernization, that Mali’s
traditional music, and perhaps even Mali itself, could be adapted for a
changing world. Yet the most intriguing tracks here are the ones that reach
back. “Sayouwe” is a traditional Dogon hymn to the ancestors, one of the songs
Sorry Bamba brought back with him from a 1976 foray into the Dogon homelands.
It, too, is braced by searing electric guitar riffs, punctuated by fiery
trumpet blasts, made dizzying with squealing runs of electric organ. It sounds
very much in line with the incendiary funk of Nigeria 70, until an eerie ululating howl
erupts from it. Even then, there’s no
real separation between modern and traditional.
The fury of the funk, the fire of the original material fuse into one
“Sayouwe” makes you realize that fine as the rest of Sorry
Bamba’s 1970s work may be, it lacks a certain abandon. You wonder if, given
that Sorry Bamba’s main sponsor was government, he might have tamped things
down a bit and if, in doing so, he might have slipped over the line from
hypnotic repetition to stasis. Because, while Volume 1 is admirable, it never
really picks you up and takes you away.
“Poory” JENNIFER KELLY