Jah Youssouf is a Malian singer and calabash player whose wife, Ivory Coast-born Bintou Coulibaly, is an accomplished singer-percussionist in her own right. Together, the two have recorded an all-acoustic album of original songs that incorporate elements of folk music that also contain echoes of musical traditions from beyond West Africa’s shores. This is a far cry from the thumping Afro-pop of Fela Kuti, or even the highly produced music of Salif Keita or the sultry desert blues of Tinariwen. Youssouf and Bintou dispense with all that electric intensity but still create a mood that is, at times, compelling.
Opening track “Atoi” serves as something of a statement of purpose. The downtempo tune is centered on Youssouf’s unvarnished vocals and a complex but rhythmic texture from the calabash. This is meditative, inward-looking African music of a sort that rarely reaches Western ears. Follow-up tune “Faco” expands the sonic pallette to include Bintou’s raw but affecting vocals and a larger contribution from her percussion repertoire. When the two voices sing together, the effect is sweetly moving. Much of the album follows this template: There are slow tunes, like the spare, powerfully rendered “Yalayala”, and there are uptempo songs too, although “uptempo” should not be interpreted to mean particularly loud or raucous. “Kahlan” ups the pace a bit but remains an acoustic workout, with Bintou’s lilting voice trilling above an upbeat counterpoint played by Youssouf. Percussion here consists of Bintou’s snapping fingers.
At 12 tracks, there is an abundance of music on Sababou, but with most songs clocking in at the two-to-four-minute range, there’s an absence of the kind of long jams that characterize so much African music. (Album closer “Folie” is the sole exception.) Maybe it’s unfair to expect this of a couple of musicians working with limited instrumentation. Unfair or not, though, it’s noticeable, as is the hurried, unfinished quality to some tunes, which at times end abruptly, giving the impression that the song was cut off midway through.
A certain sonic monotony is also present in these songs. By the time you reach the back half of the record, you’ve been exposed to the full range of sounds on display. In the absence of marked shifts in tempo, instrumentation, song structure, or vocal delivery, many of the later tracks bleed together into an indistinguishible whole. This is not necessarily a disaster, though it may sound like one. As an album, Sababou creates a mood and maintains it, and listeners who find themselves drawn in are likely to appreciate the consistency. (That said, “Folkon” is a rousing late-album highlight.) Sababou was recorded live at the musicians’ home, some 30 miles from Mali’s capital of Bamako, and the recording retains a warm, organic feel. The sound quality is excellent, with an immediacy and intimacy borne out of comfortable surroundings and shared purpose.
Those aficianados of “world music” who are looking for rousing studio arrangements and funk-rock influences should seek their booty-shaking fix elsewhere, but anyone curious about what Malian acoustic folks music sounds like these days will probably find Sababou a rewarding album to spend time with.