[26 February 2014]
I wondered what Mamani Keita was going to sound like now, going solo for the first time on her fourth album, as all the blurbs were reminding me, without a Nicholas Repac or a Marc Minelli double-billing with her. Nobody wrapping her up with a mixing desk. Her own name to the fore on the songwriting credits. What was she going to do?
She’s become less satirical in her lyrics for a start, if the translations I’ve seen here and there are a reliable indication. “Kanou,” we’re told, means “love” or “loving.” A publicist’s biographical article refers to her “unshakeable belief in sharing” and her “warm colors of feelings and listening” which makes the album sound quite cuddly. Well, the verbals might be cuddly, but the overall experience is not. The woman from Gagner l’Argent Français has not reacted to her independence by going all Rokia Traoré/“M’bifo” on us. That brand of subtlety seems to be of less interest to her than to almost any other Malian artist in Europe.
The reduction in satire, if it exists, is a language-borne sign of her return to an unambiguously Mandinka area of music. The sharpest arrows of her own voice are partnered and reflected by a battery of West African strings: guitar strings, kora strings, and ngoni strings. The guitarist has been borrowed from the Super Rail Band, so he knows something about propelling a tune. But it interests me when I notice that she has decided not to use the slow burn that she must have heard so often in the tradition of pop music that she’s borrowing from, the patient tumbling sound that made such an indelible impression on a musician like Salif Keita.
Other ideas, yes, she likes them, she grabs them. Not the patient tumble though, not that idea. That spectre of infinity is not what she likes. Another reviewer suggested that she might have picked up something from Tinariwen’s rock ‘n roll ethic, which feels to me like a good guess. She shortens a vocal fluctuation that Salif Keita or Traoré might have drawn out over half a minute. A quiver and it’s over. Even the strings keep their reverberations to a minimum. The potentially lingering string-lilt at the start of “Anissu”, for example, lasts only as long as it takes to tap that idea into the song. Then the singer jumps in to rev it up. Kanou is a pop-rock album and it’s also an impatient album. It never uses four seconds to get a motif across if it can do it in three.
The two Keitas are—everybody says—not related but Mamani used to sing backing vocals for Salif in the ‘90s before Minelli contacted her and they got together and made Electric Bamako. It was her first European success outside Salif’s shadow. She doesn’t try to duplicate the sampling that her old co-creators set around her voice like a supportive trellis, but the impatience in these Kanou songs comes out like a conscious or unconscious tribute to the speed of Minelli as he slapped an itching shuffle behind her in Electric Bamako‘s “Mirri Ye”. That was something like an appendage though. Now she’s swallowed the idea and digested it. Now you have a closer integration.