Issa Bagayogo - Mali Koura

Issa Bagayogo
Mali Koura

(Six Degrees)

Douglas Heselgrave's #8 album for 2008

First Appeared in The Music Box, September 2008, Volume 15, #9

Written by Douglas Heselgrave

Tue September 16, 2008, 06:30 AM CDT


It’s hard to believe that it was almost a century ago when Robert Johnson howled, pleaded, and moaned about God and the Devil at the crossroads. When I first encountered his work, the sound and iconography of the blues came to me like music from another world. To my untrained ears, it was thrilling, exotic, and dangerous. Thanks to a younger generation of blues artists, many of whom were white men from England, a stream of mojos, deltas, levees, backdoor men, and do-right women fired my teenage imagination thereby opening a window to a whole universe of possibilities. In the years that since have passed, this revelation has become part of the wider language of Western music. It has been tamed and gentrified, so those looking for new aural vistas now must travel much further afield than any Mississippi-bound Greyhound will take them.

The metamorphosis of the blues, from its exotic roots to its firmly established place in the cultural mainstream, is by no means an isolated incident. Throughout history, the artistic expressions of societies’ marginalized sectors often have been recognized well before the people who created them. Manifestations of transplanted indigenous culture frequently act as a way of unlocking the door to wide-sweeping acceptance and respect. So — as has been the case with the blues — what once was considered the Devil’s music is now used to sell everything from new cars to political candidates. This osmosis is particularly true in the evolution of American music — with the exception of country music, which has its roots in the songs from the British Isles. Arguably, the significant movements of the 20th Century — from jazz and rock ’n’ roll to doo-wop, disco, and soul — reflect nothing less than the assimilation of African melodic forms into the wider culture.

Standing only eight years into the new millennium, it may be too early to predict the direction in which the music of the 21st Century will travel. Yet, there is a very good chance that its story will tell a tale of blurred distinctions as music from all over the globe melds into one. Without diving into a recap of the influence of the internet and economic and cultural globalism, it’s immediately obvious that one doesn’t have to look very far to see that the sounds of the world are more readily available to people than they ever have been before. Once the domain of ethno-musicologists, world music recordings of a very high quality are now easy to find, and an educated audience has developed that has discerning tastes in music from Africa, India, the Middle East, and Central America. While it is fascinating and important to preserve music by artists working in ancient traditions, the most exciting new recordings and musical ideas coming out of the "third world" are not necessarily traditional recordings. Instead, they are those that reflect a dialogue between East and West as well as the implied juxtaposition between the ancient and modern worlds.

A few recent examples of these exciting crossovers include Gaudi’s Dub Qawaali, Vieux Farka Toure’s UFOs over Bamako, and Cheb i Sabbah’s Devotion. Recordings such as these have raised the bar to such an extent that I was prepared to be underwhelmed by Mali Koura, the fourth album from Issa Bagayogo. To my mind, it looked like any of the dozens of CDs of electronica-treated traditional music that so often are foisted onto the unsuspecting public. Thankfully, my initial prejudices couldn’t have been further off the mark. Mali Koura is in a class of its own, and it is one of the most exciting albums to be released so far this year.

Bagayogo hails from Mali, much as the title to his new album suggests. After almost two decades in the music industry, he finally is beginning to experience the success that he so richly has deserved. Though initial failures forced him to take a job as a bus driver — a move that plunged him into drug addiction and despair — Bagayogo eventually pulled himself out of the gutter and moved to Bamako, Mali’s capital city, where he began to create a highly personal form of music based on traditional kora melodies.

Though each of the songs on Mali Koura is defined by the kora, the sound that Bagayogo creates is fuller and more complex than one usually would expect to hear. At times, his compositions reflect the intricacy and layering of the Afrobeat form that was pioneered by Fela Kuti. At other moments, the album essentially re-calibrates Miles Davis' Bitches Brew for the dance floor. With its pulsing kora as well as the distorted electric guitars that bounce off the screeching saxophone riffs and intricate percussions, Sebero, the album’s opening track is absolutely breathtaking. Anyone who doubts that the kora can rock the house is hereby placed on notice. Bagayogo’s music is raw and raunchy, and it is blessed with a backbeat that defies a person to stay in his seat. It’s hard to conceive that anyone anywhere could possibly be creating better organic dance music than Bagayogo does on Mali Koura.

One of the amazing things about Mali Koura is how naturally the combination of sounds and influences blend together. Nothing feels imposed or arbitrarily thrown together, and the use of electronic flourishes is restrained and appropriate. The African flutes, horns, and drums never clash with the Western instruments. Consequently, a stylistic flow is created that is neither African nor Western but rather is an exhilarating combination of two cultures. Hints of reggae, bebop, and gutbucket blues are interspersed in the songs; the joy that seeps through every track is outrageously enticing to hear. There’s a lot to admire about Mali Koura, and one gets the feeling that Bagayogo has pulled out all of the stops to show his prospective audience exactly what he can do. With Tcheni Tchemakan, for example, modern jazz fans will marvel at how its beautiful arrangements and understated, gentle piano grooves not only support Bagayogo’s sandpaper voice but also frame a lovely traditional melody.

Mali Koura is an essential album that stands head-and-shoulders above most of the new world electronica outings that are being released at such an astonishing rate these days. Throw away your musical preconceptions. Leave your prejudices at the door. Mali Koura is a heady and exhilarating ride. It will rock and shake you to the core. starstarstarstar ˝


Of Further Interest...

Dobet Gnahore - Na Afriki

Habib Koite & Bamada - Afriki

Toumast - Ishumar


Mali Koura is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!



1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!


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