CD Reviews: Progressive Afropop

In new albums, three innovative African musicians manage to turn what has been called neotraditionalism into a progressive style.

Amadou & Miriam, Dimanche a Bamako (Nonesuch); Thione Seck, Orientation (Stern’s Africa); Daby Balde, Introducing Daby Balde (Introducing/World Music Network).

By Milo Miles

Starting in the late 1980s, the watchword for many leading African-pop performers was “neotraditionalism.” Though the term was never pinned down, it suggested a return to acoustic sounds and vintage song-forms — modified, and honorably commercialized, by modern production and amplified instruments. Some players, such as Ali Farka Toure of Mali, already fit the definition, being basically acoustic guitar pickers-plus-percussion who had no trouble adding or subtracting electricity.

The ambitious souls who felt neotraditionalism should be something new were marginalized. For a time, there was an uncomfortable trend that had leading African musicians making a down home album for consumption back in their own country and then doing a slicked-up version aimed at Western markets.

Three albums from last year, Amadou and Miriam’s “Dimanche a Bamako,” Thione Seck’s “Orientation,” and Daby Balde’s “Introducing Daby Balde” are superb pop albums that finally manage to turn what has been called neotraditionism into a progressive style. These albums come not only from Seck and Balde’s Senegal and Amadou and Miriam’s Mali, but from Egypt, India, France, Spain, Cuba, and even Jamaica. Yet they possess a unified sound and vision that owes nothing, at least directly, to current Western trends. They simply reaffirm that certain cultures share common musical heritages. Slapdash fusions are easy. Graceful integration is hard work and always a long shot. But delightful successes like these albums will please fans in every marketplace.

A couple who met in a school for the blind and have performed together for more than 30 years, Amadou and Miriam are stubborn idealists who propose a down-to-earth peace/unity philosophy to heal the riffs of love and warfare. Their standard performance setup involves their two warmly complementary voices and his guitar, so, as might be expected, their albums (the ones released in the West, anyway) tend to be a bit sweet, slow, folkloric. But the new French best-of album, “Je Pense a Toi,” cherry-picks the most propulsive, percussive, hook-driven and celebratory of their tunes.

Or maybe it’s simply the carryover from “Dimache a Bamako,” their relatively riotous collaboration with Spanish ska-rock-funk-whatever zany Manu Chao. Chao has been becoming a proper neotraditionalist himself. His ’90s band Manu Negra suggested a music blender with more horsepower than brains: was this group a party, a riot, or just record-collection hash?

Chao was an activist, a leftist protestor (one Manu Negra album was called “Amerika Perdida”) and recently he’s come into better focus as a supporter of pan-urbanism and resister of globalization. His sensibility meshes with Amadou and Miriam’s: they’re sweeter than he is, he shouts louder than they do; as a producer he knows how to give their sound punch and expanse, they know how to give his clamor lilt. Crowd and traffic and party noises almost never stop percolating in the background of “Dimache a Bamako” and tracks like Taxi Bamako and Senegal Fast Food drive home the people-coming-together message like never before.

Thione Seck has also had trouble getting his message out internationally. In Senegal, he’s as venerated as his peers Youssou N’ Dour and Babaa Maal, but he’s not nearly as well known around the globe. He never had the career plan, the connections or the sheer extroversion that allowed N’ Dour to run through his mercurial fusion period and come out the other side with majestic, mature albums like “Nothing’s In Vain” (2002) and ” Egypt ” (2004). In fact, the latter, N’Dour’s thoughtful homage to the connections — rhythmic and vocal as well as spiritual — among the musics of Senegal, Egypt and the Middle East hangs like a shadow over Seck’s album “Orientation.”

He and his annotators take pains to point out that, while “Orientation” came out after “Egypt,” it was planned, if anything, before N’Dour’s album. I’m willing to accept parallel evolution here: obviously N’Dour and Seck were both deeply influenced by superstar Egyptian singers like Oum Kalsoum, and the Arabic influences that have poured like rivers from the eastern Sahara into Senegal for centuries.

Seck gets ambitious and seeks his influences even further east, into the headlong eclecticism of India’s Bollywood film soundtracks and street-musician celebrations, as well as romantic ghazals. This is more of a stretch for him, even conceptually, but his producers Francoise Breant (Salief Keita’s “Soro”) and Ibrahima Sylla (who more or less invented the modern sound of Senegalese records) pulled everything together in a half-dozen studios over the course of three years. Finally, though, Seck’s sinewy, robust voice is the strongest binding element of all. My only complaint is “Doom (the child)” seems to be another mindless, trad-culture anti-abortion anthem. I eagerly await Seck’s homage to readily available birth control.

Daby Balde proves there are formidable performers even more hidden in the dense thickets of world music than Seck. Born in 1969, Balde grew up in the more-isolated southern portion of Senegal (for example, his Fula-language vocals do not use the Muslim stylings of N’Dour and Seck) and his lovely, meticulously assembled “Introducing Daby Balde” album shows exactly how neotraditionalism can promote regional cultures: by giving their charms high-definition sound and thoughtful, contemporary enrichments. Hearing his light-caramel voice and scanning his brief summaries of his songs, Balde appears to be a beneficent sprite — not liking being dumped over the phone is about as angry as he gets. And who can argue that we should do good things not bad things because doing bad things will “bring the end of the world sooner”?

But Balde’s affection for, and retention of, his people’s culture and Fula language unfurls dramatically in the album, especially during the interaction of African kora and guitar with French-studio accordion, saxophone, and especially violin (from Wouter Vandenabeele). Exactly how musicians from such divergent backgrounds manage to find a common unknown tongue and begin speaking it with ease cannot be explained. Still, given the marvelous recording sessions and the fine albums that result, such unlikely meetings maintain their own kind of tradition.

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