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October 30, 2008

Mali on the Move

Wyclef Jean
Techno Issa strikes a pose.
Photo: Six Degrees Records

by John Oseid

My head is swaying like a bobble-head dog's and my feet are tapping like I have a bad case of restless leg syndrome. I pull out my headphones, open my eyes, and realize that I am sitting on a packed subway car. Uh, awkward. I blame my chagrin on Issa Bagayogo and his thrilling new album Mali Koura. Bagayogo may play a traditional six-stringed harp called a kamele n'goni, but they don't call him "Techno Issa" for nothing back home in Mali--his latest release is jammed with funky Western and African flavors.

I've had Mali on my mind since James Truman wrote "Where the Music Lives" for the November issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Mali produces high-quality music at the rate Michigan used to pump out cars and James captured beautifully the world of griot story-tellers/singers and the astonishing diversity of Malian sounds.

Bagayogo's label Six Degrees is offering a free download of his opening tune "Sebero" on its Web site. Log on now and you'll thank me. The rest of the album is filled with electronica beats hovering behind his bass voice and strings. Horns and flutes on "Filaw" and "Tcheni Tchekman" add jazzy inflections, while the piano and guitar on "Dunu Kan" put you right in a swinging nightclub. I could swear the dulcet female voice on "Poyo" and the balafon (gourd xylophone)-enhanced "Ahe Sira Bila" were calling to me.

The back story to Bagayogo's success is that he went through years of tough times before arriving on the world's top stages like the Kennedy Center. Not bad for a one-time bus driver with a drug problem. Expect to hear from Techno-Issa for years.

The fine World Village label just released Douga Mansa, a lush new album by another respected Malian artist, Mamadou Diabate. Diabate plays the kora, a 21-string harp with a gourd base, that to my ear sounds something like a harpsichord. I have great memories of sitting in cafes in Bamako listening to skillful kora players create some of the most achingly lovely sounds I've ever heard. On Douga Mansa, Diabate innovates off of traditional songs, but uses no overdubbing. His cascading kora notes on "Bi Allah La Ke" put me in a seven-minute trance. In the album liner essay, music writer Banning Eyre of Afropop Worldwide notes that Diabate studied his countrymen's kora techniques on YouTube while living in the States. We're entering a whole new world of vibrant connections.

More music:
* Mamadou Diabate plays New York's Highline Ballroom on January 17, followed by a return to Mali for the Festival on the Niger, which James Truman highlighted in "Where the Music Lives."
* U.K. music journalist Charlie Gillett reviews Issa Bagayogo's album Mali Koura for the Guardian newspaper.
* In his November Conde Nast Traveler story, James Truman recommended Toumani Diabate. This Sunday, November 2,  the great kora player (and Mamadou's cousin) performs in a World Music Institute-sponsored show at NYU's Skirball Center. Look for the rest of his U.S. schedule on his MySpace page.
* Singer/guitarist Rokia Traoré is one of Mali's great young international stars. I'm betting she's as awesome on her new album Tchamantché as she is live.
* One of the most gorgeous kora albums I know is the late Senegalese Kaouding Cissoko's 1999 Kora Revolution on Chris Blackwell's Palm Pictures label.
* In the January 2003 Word of Mouth, I introduced you to the great guitar rocker Habib Koité. In the January 2005 Word of Mouth coverage of the Festival in the Desert, we published a great photo of a Tuareg guitarist sitting on his camel.
* In the September 2008 issue of Condé Nast Traveler, Amy Wilentz trailed famed development economist Jeffrey Sachs through Mali for "Jeffrey Sachs's Grand Experiment."

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