As I was listening to this album it occurred to me that when we hear music from West Africa it’s usually centred around strings. I thought back, and yes, plenty of strings: Toumani Diabaté‘s kora, Bassakou Kouyaté‘s recent Segu Blue with its group of men playing the ngoni, Juldeh Camara’s rita on Soul Science. Ali Farka Touré and his guitar. Rokia Traoré and hers. Purring strings, growling strings, squeaky strings, strings like streams of water—it’s as if that whole part of the continent is rolling around in big nets of gut and nylon. And when it’s not strings we’re hearing, then it’s voices: Salif Keita, Youssou N’Dour, Kandia Kouyaté, Mory Kante.
Dununya has strings and voices as well, but its most insistent sound, the one you’re almost always aware of as you listen, is the balafon, a wooden idiophone that stands in front of its attendant musician like an obedient dog, waiting to be struck on the back. It was the different sound of this not-stringed instrument that made me think of the strings. Played by Famoro Dioubate, a grandson of El Hadj Djeli Sory Kouyaté whose excellent musicianship can be heard on all three CDs of Buda’s Anthologie du Balafon Mandingue, this balafon follows rippling Mande patterns similar to the ones that inform the kora and the ngoni. Here the waterfall noise turns percussive. If the kora has a liquid echo, then the balafon has a woody one, a more earthbound, tissue-bound tone, as if vividly-coloured pebbles are being dropped one by one along a line. Sometimes it sounds like a complex tune played by a music box.
You can put a darker sound around it, as the group does in “Paya Paya”, yet the balafon sticks its head up, clean and shining. The slowly pondering lope of a cello at the start of the album’s title song bounces upwards into something more extroverted once Dioubate arrives. It’s not the restful sound that a kora can have, or the zingy grit of a ngoni. Like its central instrument, Dununya is lucid and optimistic. The singing is not as good as the playing, until Fomoro’s cousin Missia Saran Dioubate makes an appearance and starts giving us some of those griot-notes that aim straight at the hairs on the back of your neck. They’re magnificent, these lyrics, delivered like pronouncements. She calls out to you. “See this thing here!” she seems to be saying. “What a marvellous thing it is! Let me enumerate to you its fine qualities!” And on she goes.
Dioubate, who is nowadays based in New York, modifies the Mande-roots sound of his songs with the addition of Western instruments—cello in some places, saxophone in others—mellowing it down a bit, bedding the noise in layers. “Mali Sadjo” begins with a trickle of solo notes from the balafon, then the song is joined by a zoom of electric guitar, an opening that gets your attention. Still, Dununya doesn’t feel innovative in the way that some of the other West African albums we’ve heard recently have done. It comes across as a more low-key achievement, not a radical reworking of the balafon, or of Guinean music, but a solid advancement nonetheless, the sound of a man taking the tradition he’s got and making it larger.
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