Reviews January 22, 2018
Ballébé

As 2017 came to a close and Afropop put together a list of our favorite music of the year, we were blown away by the volume of great releases out of northern Mali and Niger—mostly Songhoy and Tuareg folk/rock. We ended up devoting a large segment of our annual Stocking Stuffers program to these albums from the dry Sahara. But no sooner did we put that broadcast to bed than this gem arrived, if anything even better than the releases we featured. It comes from Hama Sankare, longtime percussionist and vocal accompanist to the late Ali Farka Toure, and a veteran of regional bands from Gao and Niafounké, as well as Songhoy Allstars and groups led by Songhoy singer/songwriters Afel Bocoum and Mamadou Kelly.

On these 11 tracks, Hama steps into the spotlight with a sure, strong vocal sound, and the solid thump and clack of his authoritative calabash artistry. But it’s that vocal that really shines here. Fans of Ali Farka Toure may recognize the deep gravelly voice that sometimes backed Farka on recordings. Here, track after track, Sankare reveals a variety of moods and timbres. Given his range of vocal colors and the quality of his songwriting, it’s remarkable that this is the first and only album under Sankare’s own name.

There is serious production at work here: a couple of techno tracks, and lots of lush, kickass electric guitar sound from Omar Konate—a hot young Songhoy guitarist with a career of his own—and Cindy Cash Dollar, who augments the sonic palette beautifully with baritone and steel guitars. Veteran Songhoy musicians, including Yoro Cisse on monochord (djourkel), Bouba Souley Cisao on the njarka fiddle and Sekou Bah on bass, also contribute to a set of songs that veers between surging desert rock and intimate traditional folk, but never crowds out Sankare’s commanding vocal.

“MIddo Wara” is a techno dance track building around a rootsy folk vamp. Sankare’s vocal hook is a killer, making this as catchy a fusion of machine-groove and desert roots as the Sahara has yet produced. “Banda Laborou” revisits a song from one of Farka’s earliest recording sessions, heard on the priceless Radio Mali release. Here the song unfolds over a snarling electric guitar dialogue, amplifying its brooding melody in every way imaginable. Just superb.

The Peul (Fula) song “Ballébé” cranks the tempo, but dials back the electronics to showcase Cisse’s djourkel.  On the more intimate side, “Goidi Siti” also features djourkel, now over a wash of bass and slide guitar, and the track reveals unexpected warmth and plaintiveness in Sankare’s voice. The roar of tangling guitars returns on “Kenouna,” with its wailing njarka fiddle, Sankara singing as if through a megaphone and fierce clop of calabash high in the mix. The shifting soundscapes on this album keep the selection fresh and surprising throughout, with the beat alternating between pounding 4/4 and more elliptical 6/8 polyrhythms. “Mali Gando” rolls out a tasty, swinging takamba rhythm, a Songhoy signature.

As many times as we’ve seen Hama Sankare on stage and on recordings, with his humble but regal air and his million-dollar smile, who would have guessed he had this in him? Now that we know, we need more. Keep at it, Hama: You’re a star!