Reviews December 6, 2016

For most American listeners,  Abou Diarra is an unknown, and indeed he is still thought of as an “emerging artist.” This is probably due more to a lack of P.R. than talent, because over three albums and nearly a decade this Malian artist has proved himself as an innovative, extraordinarily creative and virtuosic musician and songwriter. His remarkable new effort, called Koya in homage to his mother (who also sings backup), should consolidate his status where he belongs: at the highest level.

Abou is sometimes called the Jimi Hendrix of the kamale ngoni, which, unlike the simple ukulele-type ngoni, is similar to a small kora. Indeed he is a spectacular soloist and ingeniously subtle just as accompaniment to his singing. Which is fine, but there is something more intangible that makes Diarra stand out from the crowd. Perhaps it is his soulful, reflective singing style, his voice a dusty echo of the roads he has walked alone across Mali collecting folklore at the grass roots level. Then again it may just well be the man himself, a gentle and thoughtful presence with a life message in his music that transcends any language barriers.

This legacy is filtered through his interests in jazz, blues, and a predilection for some experimental modern approaches, making him very accessible to fans of Issa Bagayogo or Ali Farka Toure. He is a native of the Wassoulou region, and typical to the area many of the tracks are slow or medium in pace, gently rocking between two chords. It can be very hypnotic, especially with the production guidance of Nicolas Repac, who sets everything in a shimmering mirage of eclectic instrumentation that augments the Wassoulou desert blues sounds with some real American blues. Notable here is the harmonica of Vincent Bucher, whose style is a dead ringer for Little Walter’s work with Muddy Waters in the 1950s. When paired with some great Fula flute from Simon Wins, a guest appearance from kora giant Toumani Diabate, and Repac’s discreet samples and electronic washes in the background, you find yourself in an evocative landscape that cradles the very essence of human existence.

The production is superb, providing space and clarity, and his regular Donko band is present, providing an impeccable, loping, funky backdrop. Yes, there are several upbeat tracks on Koya, but I suggest this is best savored with your eyes closed, swinging in a hammock, cool drink in hand.

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