[28 August 2011]
Samba Touré, Malian guitarist extrordinaire, first gained widespread exposure backing up another Malian guitarist, the legendary Ali Farka Touré, known to many as the well from which much of the subgenre of ‘desert blues’ has sprung. Desert blues is about as accurate a name for a style as it gets, as it is a synthesis of traditional West African music and blues from North America, and specifically the Mississippi delta, which was home for the vast majority of worthwhile blues artists of the 20th century, from BB King to Muddy Waters to Robert Johnson.
What is fascinating about this music is how the two disparate geographic locations are homes to a culture that was split apart for hundreds of years through the European slave trade, and has only started to come back together in the past few decades, largely through the efforts of musicians participating in the cultural exchange that has led to ‘desert blues’. Two separate strains of this music evolved almost completely independent of each other, and only came back together when people like Ali Farka Touré heard American blues on the radio in the ‘70s.
The resulting mixture could, in a way, be called cultural inbreeding, but there are no web-footed freaks of nature here. Instead, we have a music that retains the richness of traditional West African music with the relative freshness of the blues that comes in the form of electric instrumentation and technique. So here we have Samba Touré, who has started to come into his own after the death of Ali Farka Touré, his longtime mentor. Crocodile Blues is his second album for international release, coming two years after his Songhai Blues: Tribute to Ali Farka Touré. This new album sees him moving a little beyond the slightly more traditional sound of its predecessor, but that doesn’t mean he has completely eschewed tradition in favor of new sounds. African rhythms and instrumentation are still all over the album, but they are not as prevalent in this new music, most likely in an effort to let Samba craft his own sound that doesn’t rely as heavily on the influence of his mentor. He succeeds in his task, creating a more distinctive sound.
Touré is certainly one of the most accomplished guitarists of all the desert blues players. His single-note style is nothing new, but the manner in which he executes is highly virtuosic within this manner of playing, resulting in some very exhilarating passages that fuse a sophisticated melodic and rhythmic temperament. His tone throughout is relatively subdued, but one of the better moments on the album comes during the standout cut “Takamba”, when he lets his guitar start to distort. I was so hoping for a big, fat, Buddy Guy-esque solo where he really lets loose, but this doesn’t come to fruition. Still, this song is the one where he cuts loose the most, and it is a very exciting thing to hear. Unfortunately, since he doesn’t completely abandon the mellow attitude of the rest of the album, this one feels a little like a tease. Hopefully next time around he will do some kind of freak-out on the guitar, something his playing throughout this album shows he would be more than capable of pulling off.
His guitar playing throughout is remarkably fluid, restrained yet powerful, expressive and technically impressive but tasteful as well. The same could be said of his voice, a tool he uses to express his messages of love and peace as well as his warnings of dangers both physical and emotional. However, the two are largely independent of each other. He doesn’t indulge in the oft-overused method of playing a guitar lick that exactly matches what he is singing. Again, this is a testament to his sense of taste and determination to develop a unique style.
This is not to diminish the contributions of his backing band, all of whom play their instruments with similar restraint and effectiveness. The way that the other guitars all swirl around each other and blend in with Touré‘s lead playing creates an effect akin to being hypnotized. If this were a mono recording, it would be difficult to tell where one guitar ends and another begins. I mean that in a good way. The various percussion instruments all contribute heavily to establishing the feel, especially the tamani, or talking drum, a highly versatile and gorgeous instrument. As there is a strong emphasis on rhythm in all of the songs, this is most definitely a form of dance music, but not the kind where you would go to the club and drop some E. This is more the music of a small group of friends gathering around a campfire, sharing laughter and tears, a meal and a few drinks. This feeling is especially evident on the laid-back swing of “White Crocodile Blues”.
The structures of the songs are not particularly complex. Most simply lock into a groove and ride it out. That’s really the purpose of this kind of music. Both Malian music and the blues are, at face value, extremely simplistic forms when compared with ‘art music’, for instance, like you would hear an orchestra play. The idea is to create a jumping-off point for the musicians to express themselves, to see how far they can stretch their powers individually while remaining a cohesive unit. Mostly, the ensemble succeeds, but I would have preferred to see the whole group show off their chops even more. As it is, Touré is given the overwhelming time to shine throughout the album, which makes sense, as he is the star, after all. But even more interplay and ‘solos’ from other members of the group would be a welcome change.
Some album highlights are “Albina”, probably the most entrancing groove on the album; “Dani Dou”, which opens with a lovely, lyrical guitar introduction and showcases Touré’s playing at its sweetest; “Moussoya”, a duet with the tremendous wassoulou singer Oumou Sangare, whose voice blends in perfectly with both the band and Touré’s own voice; and “Pullo”, where the groove changes halfway through and Toure shouts praises to the people of Africa. There are very few low points. Personally, I don’t ever want to hear crying children on an album, and that is exactly what you get in “Idje Tchina”. It makes sense, since the song is about children, but it’s still annoying as hell. Another things that works against the music is the homogeneity in terms of key centers. Most, if not all, of the songs seem to be in the same key. For me, this creates a feeling of fatigue. No matter how good the groove may be, I get bored hearing such little harmonic variation. It makes me want to take this album in small doses, rather than listening to the whole thing and tiring of it after a few songs.
All in all, though, this is a very good album. If you are not familiar with Malian music or desert blues, this will serve as a decent introduction. If you are looking for something along the same lines that is a bit darker and even more blues oriented, try Tinariwen. If you want something a little more traditional, try Rokia Traoré. These two artists, along with Samba Touré and several others of the genre which you can discover on your own, are all highly recommended.