Bouncy hip-hop-folk from Mali
Is Manu Chao really such a great producer? The Paris-born guitarist made a splash in 2004 by collaborating with Amadou & Mariam, producing Dimanche a Bamako. The huge success of that record suggests that Chao’s touch can bring some artists to a wider audience. But I find Dimanche a Bamako disappointingly smooth in its sound—not exactly glossy, but monotonously paced and somewhat rhythmically repetitive, especially compared to the duo’s earlier records. Fortunately, the ragged voices and impeccable musicianship of the artists manage, usually, to overcome the sparkly sheen.
Chao is on hand as the producer for the third album by Mali’s SMOD, and those same tendencies are again in evidence. Maybe it’s not fair to blame the producer, but certain signatures of his influence—the songs bleeding into one another, the similarities in length (every track but one is between three and four minutes), the almost mechanical percussion—add up to a general absence of raggedness and a certain harmonious blandness.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that, once again, the musicians at times rise above the homogenizing production. Unlike Amadou & Marian, however, these youngsters don’t have quite the chops or experience to do so in an entirely convincing fashion.
SMOD consist of Samou Bagayoko, Ousmane Cisse, and Tiemoko Traore, three young Malians who sing and rap, accompanied by Samou’s acoustic guitar and various bits of studio wizardry. It’s tempting to call SMOD an African boy band, Bamako’s answer to N’Sync: bespectacled, gap-toothed, and utterly endearing. There is a good deal more grit here, though, and the talent of the three is undeniable; vocal harmonies pour forth effortlessly, while the rapping (in French and various indigenous languages) provide a sinewy counterpoint for the guitar. There is no concession to an Anglophone audience.
Some of the songs are quite arresting. “Ca Chante” benefits from a bouncing melody, a can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head guitar line and plenty of those honeyed vocals. “Tidjidja” combines similar elements with similarly effective results. “Simbala” dispenses with the rapping but keeps the harmonies and guitar, while “Ambola” ups the tempo and brings the raps back front and center to create one of the more satisfying tracks on the album.
Midway through, the homogeneity starts to kick in. “Reviens Djarabi” sounds something like “Fenkoro”, and both echo “Nedetado” in their construction: smooth vocals, rap interludes, acoustic strumming and simple beat. “J’ai Pas Peur de Micro” changes this up with its nervous buzzsaw guitar riffs, while album closer “Fitra Waleya” (written by Chao) tops five minutes—an eternity for this record. But even so, the basic template is never very far away.
It’s easy to believe that SMOD will get more attention outside of West Africa for this record, having worked with an international name like Chao, and it’s also easy to think that the trio deserves it. Doubtless, they have benefited from Chao’s skills and publicity, but it’s something to hope for that, next time, they seize the production reins themselves and strike out on their own. They may end up with something less polished, but also less safe.
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// Notes from the Road
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