At first I was dismissive of this album. I was thinking of Biyi Adepegba, the UK-based African music promoter who went on Charlie Gillett’s show last year and complained that the local world music labels were tailoring African releases to suit their European audiences and ignoring the popular musical tastes of the countries the musicians came from.
To a significant extent this is true, and Sigil is the kind of album that Adepegba was talking about. It was produced in a studio near the Scottish border, not in Africa, and the music is mainly acoustic, with a strong traditional influence. It isn’t fuji, nor is it any of the other genres that sell so well south of the Sahara. There’s some mbalax in there but not in a way that’s going to set the dancefloors alight.
After a while, however—after I had listened to Nuru Kane twice—I began to think that if the European predilection for acoustic, guitar-playing Africans leads to music like this then there’s something to be said for it. Sigil is, frankly, an excellent album. The acoustic sound is flavoured with little touches of electrification, (there’s a moment of spacey tenor funk on “Çigal”) and an obvious devotion to the gnawa trance rhythms that hit Kane with revelatory force when he visited Morocco around the turn of the century.
I’ve read that gnawa music is a staple of the live shows that he shares with his band, Bayefall Gnawa, and in songs such as “Colère” he preserves the feeling of revolving constancy that gives gnawa its medicinal charm, while at the same time managing to lend the trance a definite shape. The revolution of chanting and clapping becomes a thing in space with a beginning, an end, and some pleasing surprises in the middle. In other words, it becomes a song, as recognised by radio and the music-buying public, and it accomplishes the transformation without violating its origins. This is not an easy thing to do but Kane does it well. “Colère” is rapturous.
The gentle guitar of the first track, “Toub”, leads into a deeper sound—probably a guimbri, a three-stringed bass gnawa lute with a long yellow body—and then a kind of galloping trance-funk with a scooped, percussive undertone and something that almost verges on scat singing at the end. “Talibe” brings in Martin Swan on the violin. The guitar ticks along underneath the sawn strings and they give off an urgent shriek before relaxing into the singer’s voice. It’s a moving song, sounding alternately sweet and sad.
“Nabi” introduces a touch of reggae. On “Gourée”, Kane not only uses the fingerwork of the blues but also imitates the dry vocal cadences of an American bluesman, and the fluty intonation that sometimes affects the voice.
The blues quotation takes on extra force when you realise that Gourée is an island a little way off the Senegalese coast where slaves were kept before they were shipped away to work in the New World. (Nowadays the old slave house is a popular tourist attraction, with signs on the walls indicating rooms that were set aside for men, women, children, and the unfit. The island also boasts an institution with the happy name of ‘Université des Mutants.) You’ve no doubt already heard people argue that the blues come from West Africa, but in this case there’s an element of deliberate international hommage.
Sigil is going to suit Adepegba’s hypothetical European world music listener right down to the ground, and yet that’s no reason to ignore it. It’s a familiar sound, but a good one, and Kane tackles it with the inventive panache of a pro in love with his work. He has a good voice as well, with that appealing Senegalese accent that tries to angle every second vowel up the speaker’s nose. Look into local African music, yes, of course. But leave room for this, too.