[19 June 2003]
Everyone wants to do Euro-techno crossed with Afro-pop these days. Issa Bagayogo has been lighting it up with his French producer Yves Wernert; Frederic Galliano did a nice little disc with “African Divas” that still sounds great after a year; Damon Albarn has the whole Mali Music thing and has dragged some of that flavor onto Think Tank; the list goes on, and on, and on, and doesn’t seem like it’s going to stop.
But why shouldn’t this mix work? You get the tightest production in the world (current Euro electro) together with the most beautiful voices and song structures in the world (western Africa)—what’s not to like about that?
Indeed, this disc gives us all plenty to like. Minelli has been knocking around the techno-jazz music industry for a while, Keita has been waiting to make herself known as a solo performer for about that long, they hook up together in Paris and make music, they go back to Bamako to finish it, and it sounds great. We start with the burning lounge-Mali-jazz-griot-reggae-bop called “N’Ka Willy” and we think maybe just maybe this is the coolest music ever made. The walking bassline, the tight Kenyan-sounding horns, the non-sequitur movie sample (“I’m not young and vulnerable anymore but my young husband was!”), the breakdown halfway through—but what is really impressive is the clean way Keita’s voice cuts right through all this like a scalpel to expose the human heart beating within. She’s charismatic, she’s cool, she’s owning things. We look forward to the rest of the disc.
But the rest of the disc is pretty much the same. It’s all great, whether mad jujumusicacidjazzy like “Abdoulayi Djodo” or fusion drum’n'bass like “Mirri Ye” or glitterdowntempo like “Nani”, and it won’t put too much of a strain on the old ears or the old musical understandings. I’m loving the idea of how “Macary” must sound in the clubs, with its steroided-out chickenscratch funk and its haunting sax and siren wails, and with Keita sounding both defiant and introspective, even within the same line. “Nedjagné” sounds like a cool-ass updating of an airline’s theme music, except set to machine-bred cymbal triplets and the canniest bridge in the world.
Oh and yeah, they end things with a “traditional African-sounding track for authenticity”, and yeah they have something that sounds like Shirley Bassey/Propellerheads funk, and yeah it’s all very nice. But it’s not very exciting, as too much of it sounds samey-samey, and it’s ultimately not very African-sounding. You can toss in as many King Sunny Ade riffs as you want, so many pretty sounds that sound like the real thing, but there’s nothing here that’ll stick with you past one hearing. Part of it is Minelli’s own cleverness: he can’t go more than a few bars without changing everything up or adding something superfluous. I like it, and it sounds fine and breezy and fun, but there’s no heft to it at all, like a corked bat. It’s pretty clear that Minelli’s ace breakbeat drum fills are more important here than anything that Keita is trying to convey with her voice. There’s too many signifiers, and not enough emotional truth.
But if you don’t care about “emotional truth” in a record that’s pretty obviously not trying for any, then don’t worry about any of that and groove on the Euro-heavy synthesis. It’s nothing new, ultimately, but it’s the tightest nothing-new on the block, in a genre that’s just now finding its own way in the world.