Ake Doni Doni
Cheick Hamala Diabate
We say: Malian banjo lands on the banks of the Potomac
Malian n'goni player Cheick Hamala Diabate has an impressive musical pedigree: as cousin of world–renowned kora player, Toumani Diabate, and nephew of Super Rail Band guitarist, Djeilmady Tounkara, it is hardly any wonder that his chops sound so polished and effortless. The n'goni, a small, skin–covered plucked instrument from West Africa, is the ancient precursor of the banjo and, having previously hobnobbed with US banjo players like Bela Fleck and Bob Carlin, Diabate enthusiastically explores the ancestral link between these two instruments. He also plays the banjo himself on some tracks here and the result is a body of work that, at one moment, sounds completely traditional and, at another, a fusion of blues, Malian griot groove and even reggae. Diabate also plays guitar—left–handed and upside down—on a couple of tracks.
Recorded in Washington DC, where Diabate has lived since 1995, Ake Doni Doni takes full advantage of the location to make use of members of DCs Afrofunk band Chopteeth for this recording, as well as recruiting Diabate's own daughter and nephew. The result is a compelling, propulsive mix that manages to sound authentically Malian and give the impression that the River Niger is flowing sluggishly outside the studio doors, despite the fact that it most certainly isn't.
Griot music is not meant to be strictly for entertainment but rather to give moral instruction and to praise benefactors. Still a traditional griot despite his DC residency, it is quite clear who Diabate's prime benefactors are. Recipients of Diabate's praise on this collection include the Malian president, Amadou Toumani Toure, whom he bigs up on A.T.T, and a businessman by the name of Foulanga Babani Sissoko who gets praise on Baba Sissoko Dabia. In contrast, the CDs title track Ake Doni Doni, which translates as 'Take it Slow', is a plea for his country's youth to adhere to traditions, control their impulses and avoid contracting HIV. It's sung in English, so this message is clearly meant to be universal one.
The Magic Couple: Best of 1997—2002
Amadou and Mariam
We say: The latest compilation from Africa's most famous touring couple
There's been a rash of Amadou and Mariam CD releases in recent years, especially since they have become household names on the summer festival circuit. This is a compilation of work released before their Manu Chao and Damon Alban collaborations, and before the hoopla of their current superstar status. Magic Couple contains tracks from their first three albums recorded outside Africa: Sou Ni Tile, Tje Ni Mousso and Wati. It's a well thought–out collection with a good mix of tunes.
There's the bluesy Je Penses a Toi for openers, then the Ali Farka Toure–esque desert groove of Combattants, with its wailing Mississippi delta harmonica, a formula that is returned to on A Chacun Son Probleme. Mouna is a song sung entirely by Mariam, in which she sounds something akin to a down–home Oumou Sangare with a female chorus, flute and funky groove. C'est Comme Ca has the signature Amadou guitar riff we've come to expect, with a groove that manages to sound both cheerful and a little dark at the same time. In contrast, Djagneba has a light jazzy feel, and even has a trombone solo emerging from the mix.
For those familiar with more recent releases, Mon Amour, Ma Cherie will sound immediately recognizable and, despite its French title, more pure African than much of the rest of the collection, while Chantez–Chantez is pure boogie with scorching guitar work from Amadou. Here and there, it can feel a little overblown: the breathy flute on Beki Miri sounds a little corny to these ears—more Jethro Tull than Roland Kirk—and you feel that a Manu Chao–style strip–down production treatment would not go amiss here. On the whole though, Magic Couple captures the distinctive musical magic of this talented Malian couple and shows how their music has developed and distilled over the past decade.
We say: A round-the-world journey that never touches down in one spot
Tribecastan—or TriBeCaStan, let's get it right—is the collaboration of "banshee mandolin" player John Kruth and ethnomusicologist Jeff Greene, aided and abetted by rock bassist David Dreiwitz; Steve Turre, the trombone player for the Saturday Night Live band (playing conch shell on this occasion); ex–Be Good Tanya, Jolie Holland, on box–fiddle and vocals; and Klezmatic, Matt Darriau. Tribecastan is also, according to the press release, "a country without borders tucked away in a corner of downtown Manhattan…home to Uighur mountaineers and Croatian zookeepers."
Clearly, it's quite a hybrid then, musically speaking, and each track veers off the well–trodden musical highway to some as yet undiscovered enclave of world music in a charming and surprisingly non–irritating way. The most interesting tracks are probably those that do not really allude to anywhere geographically but just utilize unusual instrumentation to create a sort of gonzo chamber music. Traffic Jam, which genuinely does evoke a Manhattan rush hour snarl–up, is a good example of this type.
There's an awful lot of global tearing around: Sunda Sunday, which uses steel pans and flute to evoke a gamelan, is swiftly followed by something vaguely Middle Eastern in feel before segueing to Black Ice, all drones and menacing strings. It's all pretty seamless though, and the journey is mostly a smooth one despite running up a vast amount of musical air–miles en route. It's hard to describe really. Imagine a jam session between stranded musicians at a world music festival hosted by polite but earnest white blues musicians from Manhattan.
We say: Soundtrack from an imaginary country somewhere between Serbia and Hungary
Planet Paprika, the creation of Frankfurt's Shantel (Stefan Hantel) is an all–inclusive place of the heart and mind, where east meets west, where there are no borders, there's no need for visas and the only people who might have trouble gaining entry are the style police and po–faced traditionalists. This is the soundtrack for that imaginary country: a gypsy encampment of the mind that Shantel has created with the able assistance of the same Bucovina Club Orkestar that he used on his previous Disko Partizani, this time augmented by accordion, fiddle, trumpet and female vocalists. It's a musical mélange that incorporates Central European oompah and Balkan gypsy wedding band music, with clear directions given in heavily accented English—the sort of thing that Manu Chao might have come up if he had based himself in Bratislava rather than Barcelona.
Like Manu Chao, this is focused, joyful and deceptively simple. It's great festival music: catchy faux–gypsy turbo–folk with vodka shots. There are all sorts of flavors in the mix—Eastern European gypsy folk, Serbian brass, Bulgarian polyphony, reggae, ska, rap, Russian pop, disco—but fundamentally it is goodtime music for dancing that does not take itself too seriously. The concept—or perhaps conceit—is finely honed but you can rest assured that tongues are firmly in cheek as heads bob, arms wave and toes tap along. If you can bring yourself to ignore its somewhat dubious geography, then Planet Paprika is a fun place to be. What's so wrong with that?
Laurence Mitchell is a British travel writer and photographer with a special interest in transition zones, cultural frontiers and forgotten places that are firmly off the beaten track. He is author of the Bradt Travel Guides to Serbia, Belgrade and Kyrgyzstan and a regular contributor to hidden europe magazine. His photographic website can be seen at www.laurencemitchell.com.