This is the second of three posts which round up some of the music that I’ve enjoyed in 2015 but never got round to writing about. This one discusses music from beyond these shores that I have been listening to in 2015, particularly some fine West African releases.

For several years I’ve enjoyed the exquisite music of Ballake Sissoko, the kora player from Mali. Like the more famous Toumani Diabate, with whom he recorded a celebrated album of duets, New Ancient Strings, he’s a griot whose music is steeped in ancient west African traditions. But he’s also a great innovator and collaborator. In the past he’s recorded an album of duets with the Italian classical pianist, Ludovico Einaudi (Diario Mali), and 3MA, an extraordinary collaboration with Malagasy valiha (tubular zither) master Rajery and the Moroccan oud player Driss El Maloumi that fused Maghrebi and sub-Saharan musical traditions.

Vincent Segal and Ballaké Sissoko
Vincent Segal and Ballaké Sissoko

Then, in 2010, he recorded Chamber Music, an exquisite set with the French cellist Vincent Segal. Two musicians from very different backgrounds yet who seemed to understand each other intuitively, created an album in which Sissoko’s delicate, rippling  kora patterns embroidered the darker, richer cello passages.

Now the pair have brought out a successor to that album. Musique de Nuit was recorded on the roof of Ballaké Sissoko’s home in Bamako, and consists of late-night reflective pieces, certainly, but featuring upbeat and intricate passages where cello and kora switch between providing rhythm and melody. Both of these albums are music to listen to when you’re in the mood for something peaceful, but that’s not to say it’s simply background music. This is intricate and absorbing music played by two consummate masters of their instrument.

Here’s an informal set recorded by NPR for one of their Tiny Desk Concerts:

Why has such a wealth of varied music emerged from West Africa – and keep arriving, year after a year?  There’s a clue, perhaps, in the richness and longevity of the region’s history and its cultural traditions, something that was touched upon in last week’s edition of Radio 4’s In Our Time on the Empire of Mali, and also last week by Seckou Keita when he spoke of that history on stage at the Liverpool Philharmonic’s new Music Room.

I’d been listening to Keita’s latest album, 22 Strings, for a few weeks before the concert. Remarkably, it’s his sixth album, though I only got to know his music through his collaboration with Welsh harpist Catrin Finch on Clychau Dibon, their beautiful 2013 album. 22 Strings is a beautifully meditative, almost entirely solo kora recording, enchanting and musically complex with crystalline arpeggios and rich harmonies. With moments of tranquillity and of warm joyfulness, this is the album that reveals why this kora player, now resident in the UK, is revered as a master of the instrument.

Something I’ve noticed about West African releases in the last few years is the number of times the European violin has been combined to great effect with traditional African stringed instruments like the kora, n’goni and riti. Seckou Keita’s Quartet, heard on albums like Afro-Mandinka Soul do this, as does  Amadou Diagne on his 2013 album Yakar which I only heard this year.

Amadou Diagne
Amadou Diagne

From Senegal (but now, like Seckou Keita, living in the UK), Amadou Diagne backed artists like Youssou N’Dour, Cesária Évora and Jimmy Cliff while a percussionist in L’orchestre National du Sénégal.  Yakar is his second CD, a set of traditional and original songs featuring his warm, expressive voice and finger-picked acoustic guitar with string arrangements on some tracks. The lyrics of the poignant ‘Emigrés’ talk of the hardships experienced by immigrants in the UK, while ‘Goree’ refers to the island off the coast of Senegal from where slaves were shipped across the Atlantic. Amadou has a new album, Ligeey, out which I haven’t heard yet.

Tamikrest are a desert blues band from Mali’s Saharan north. At first you think they are just a clone of the more famous Tuareg band Tinariwen. But, though they sing in Tamashek and share the same loping rhythms of the Tuareg tradition, Tamikrest have their own distinctive sound, one that highly beguiling to anyone seduced by the guitar-led rock bands of the sixties and seventies. These younger musicians mix traditional Tuareg music with Western rock influences heard via the internet and mp3s. You can hear echoes of Hendrix, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin in their distinctive sound.


Tamikrest  released their first album back in 2009, but it’s only this year that I’ve really tuned into the band, particularly through their new album, Taksera, which means ‘a celebration with music’ in the Tamashek language. It’s a collection of live recordings of tracks from their three previous albums. This is music driven by powerful bass and percussion, above which soars the guitar of lead singer Ousmane Ag Mossa and the vocals of the band’s fine female singer Wonou Walet Sidati (who was formerly with Tinariwen).

Bassekou Kouyaté is another Malian, born near Segou in the geographical and cultural heart of the country. He’s a master of the ngoni, the instrument with four strings that are plucked like a banjo. If that suggests music of pure ethnic curiosity, one number from Ngoni Ba, the band he formed nearly ten years ago, will quickly correct that misconception. On their first two albums, Segu Blue and I Speak Fula, Ngoni Ba emerged as a group that took intricate traditional melodies and powered them with Bassekou’s furious afro-rock ngoni to rival any electric guitar.

On the new album, Ba Power, Bassekou Kouyaté’s ngoni has been electrified (in both senses of the word) using distortions, pick ups and effects pedals to power a fully-fledged rock band. Kouyaté’s wife Amy Sacko once again takes lead vocals, while his sons Madou and Moustafa add to the battery of ngoni players. On several tracks, Robert Plant’s drummer Dave Smith provides some additional rock credentials. ‘Ba in Bambara means ‘strong’ or ‘great’, says Kouyaté. ‘This is the album with the toughest sound I’ve ever made, and I want these songs to grab as many people as possible.’ They certainly do, right from the first, attacking notes your hear on ‘Siran Fen’:

Fatoumata Diawara is yet another fantastically-talented Malian musician. In 2012 the vocalist released her first album, Fatou. This year she appeared in the stunning film Timbuktu, from Malian director Abderrahmane Sissako and I also came across a cracking live album At Home Live in Marciac recorded with the Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca during a recent European tour. Just listen to the opener, ‘Sowa’:

On ‘Sowa’ Diawara and Fonseca are just getting warmed up. After that, the album never lets up.

Dragging myself away from Mali with difficulty, what is there that can rival that land’s varied musics? One candidate might be the London-based musical collective The Heliocentrics who combine funk, jazz and hip-hop influences. Every album they have released has been an exotic and stimulating collaboration –  first with the Ethiopian pianist Mulatu Astatke (the psychedelic Inspiration Information, 2009), and then with the American jazz multi-instrumentalist and specialist in Persian classical music,Lloyd Miller in a 2010 album that blended haunting flutes, piano, and pounding drums, in a swirling mix of Western jazz and Middle Eastern modality and meditation.

This year The Heliocentrics collaborated with veteran Nigerian saxophonist and pioneer of Afrobeat, Orlando Julius to produce Jaiyede Afro, an album that combines early compositions by Julius that have never been previously recorded, with stomping new arrangements of some of his Afro-beat classics, and some new tunes. ‘Aseni’ is pure, grinding Afro-funk with a tough horn line and killer percussion.

Operating in the same neck of the woods are The KutiMangoes, a sextet from Copenhagen led by the baritone sax of Michael Blicher who, on Afro-Fire, stir up a swirling mix of jazz and Afro-beat, typified by the album’s opening track, ‘Fire’. It’s totally infectious and enhanced by shouts, scat and chants from Burkina Faso vocalist Patrick Kabre. Impossible to keep your feet still.

For a sextet The KutiMangoes make a big noise like an Afro-Orchestra, but this union of Northern Europeans and West Africans can also play gentle, as on the trombone and keyboards-led ‘Desert Moon’.  Totally different mood, but an outstanding track.

Finally to Cuba and one of the island’s musical legends, of whom there are so many, most of them sadly dead. But Candido Camera is not dead.  Now 94, the most recorded conga drummer in the history of jazz, released a new album this year – The Master. One reviewer rhapsodised that Candido is:

A conguero like no other. His attack is angular; almost too soft and caressing. His large hands and long fingers might, on another musician, be forbidding, but on Candido’s they are almost loving; the kind that wrap themselves gently and protectively around an object rather than seize it. This gives him a special sound; one that is soft and virtually whisper-like. As a result the sound that emanates from his set of drums seems to sound like the profound rumbling of the earth as it wakes up from its slumber each time the seasons change, for instance.

A magic album.

To be continued: jazz and beyond on ECM

See also

7 thoughts on “The music in my head (part 2): West Africa and beyond

  1. Reblogged this on Passing Time and commented:
    To add to my most recent piece about the music of Mali, here’s a great piece from That’s How the Light Gets In on West African music (with a strong emphasis on Mali, naturally!)

  2. Enjoyed your thoughts and selection and also your piece last year on Abdullah Ibrahim which alerted me to
    the wondrous Bea Benjamin. “A morning in Paris, ” is sublime and I was delighted to have bought a second hand copy online. I would recommend “Mbira” composed for two harpsichords with African tuning and a rattle, by the South African, Kevin Volans.

    1. Thanks, Garrick. I will definitely seek out the Kevin Volans piece – I have a couple of CDs by the Kronos Quartet that feature compositions by Volans (Pieces of Africa includes ‘White Man Sleeps’ and Hunting:Gathering solely dedicated to Volans.

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