ver since Issa Bagayogo's first album Sya in 1998, I have been astonished that this highly original, yet accessible Malian musician hasn't broken through in a bigger way in the Western market.
Along with his French producer/co-writer Yves Wernert he creates hypnotic funky riff-based songs which you would think would be far easier on the ear for the average rock or hip-hop fan then many of his more famous, awards-ladened, African contemporaries, with their over intricate fretwork and gymnastic vocal displays. Bayayogo's vocal is a resonant baritone purr comparable more with John Lee Hooker than Salif Keita.
Sya's follow-up, Timbuktu, was perhaps a tad overwrought because of this—a little too keen to cater to a club-going audience with a plethora of sounds and complex rhythms competing for attention. Here, the technology dominated the music rather than serving it. As such, Tassoumakan comes with questions: will it be a retrurn to the elegant simplicity of his debut or would it be a further descent into generic Club Afrobeat?
The first track opens with the lone muted rasp of the n'goni (a kind of African lute) which is then joined by Issa's vocal, sounding more like its praying aloud than singing. A scorching flute solo (if you can imagine the words 'scorching' and 'flute' existing in the same sentence) comes and goes, signaling that we’re in safe hands. This is going to be a pleasurable ride.
From then on each track skanks, strolls or prowls in a pleasingly relentless way towards its fade-out, proudly showing off how well its shiny coat of studio wizardry sits with some of the oldest musical sounds in the world.
“Touba”, which reminds of Remain in Light-era Talking Heads, is a particular highlight with its choppy funk guitar, intense robotic momentum and call-and-response vocals.
But it’s “Joola” that initiates an entirely new genre—Malian Dub. I can almost feel the dry desert air circulating around my small London flat as its subdued vibe flows from the hi-fi speakers. I can't recall the last time I’ve heard so much space in a track. Ambient female backing vocals create an atmospheric wash rather than suggesting a real human presence, and along with a barely audible rustle of a rhythm track, they function as a backdrop for a meandering blues guitar and Issa's sung and spoken vocal. For that's what Issa does—when he isn't singing, he doesn't rap: he speaks. There’s no urgency in his delivery: just resignation. Unfortunately we don’t get translations of the lyrics with this CD, so we don't know what Issa is resigned about, but it hardly matters when the music is this seductive.
This album is a definite step forward in Bagayogo's single-minded mission to successfully combine the chilling digital sheen of electronics with the warm textures and approximate tunings of ancient strings.
Sure, it's longer than it needs to be (like most modern albums), but if you take the four-to-the-floor club tracks and consign them to the trying-too-hard bin then you'll end up with Mr. Bagayogo's most honed, focused and restrained album to date and, for me, a possible contender for World Music album of the year.
Reviewed by: Howard Male
Reviewed on: 2004-09-02