“Sabou” means “the cause of everything”. If anyone gets to title their album this, it’s Mory Kanté, one of the biggest stars in West African music, which is not something to be taken lightly, considering the competition. Kanté, whose 1988 single “Yéké Yéké” was the first by an African artist to sell one million copies, has a lot of knowledge about why things happen the way they do. This might be his biggest statement of it yet.
It turns out that “sabou” (and Sabou) is all about relentless swing, impeccable harmony, soaring melody, soul, guts, and ass. These songs are undeniable, unimprovable, unimpeachable, and the world has become unimaginable, to me, without them. I hope you’re getting the sense that this is a rave review by now. Don’t expect any ironic detachment or fake objectivity from here on in, not when songs like “Diananko” rule so hard. Kanté writes the song, sings it, arranges it, produces it, plays 13 different instruments on it, and still finds a way for the background singers and Adama Condé‘s solo work on the balafon (the balafon is like a xylophone, and Condé‘s work here makes a good case for him being the best in the world on this instrument) and an African flute, and actual silence and space, to all take equal parts. Oh it’s lovely.
“Sabou” is also about dropping the things that get in your way—in Kanté‘s case, the Western electrical frippery that he felt was dominating the way he looked at music—and just playing the hell out of whatever you can. This is an “acoustic” album, but we’re not by any means talking about a bunch of session hack people sitting around with acoustic guitars. There’s just no electronics here, which is kind of shocking. It’s also shocking that it moves the booty so tough without electronics. The seven-minute closing tune, “Biriya (Rythmes du Mandingue)”, has a repeating rhythm pattern that sounds like it’s computer-based, but it’s not: just a few friends sitting around knocking the hell out of their drums. This is precision work, people; in every song, there is a moment where tones shift slightly and then they’re off into a new motif, all without programming or tweakage. Oh it’s lovely.
“Sabou” can be easy and sweet, like the slow 6/4 reggae-influenced “Djou”, or Arabesque, like the title song, or full-on trancey Afrobeat, like “Kénkon”. It can be Kanté taking over the song with his huge expansive voice or a kickin’ call and response, or just riding out a groove without words. It can be in French, Guinean, or the language formed by people doing what they do best. Oh it’s lovely. Rave over. Sorry for the corny title.