Various Artists: Rough Guide to African Blues

[4 December 2007]

By Robert R. Calder

The title of this set does seem to be stretching things in relation to the actual music on this CD. Here and there blues influences show, or maybe suggestions of native African musical traditions which impacted on blues. Regarding this as simply a CD for the ears, rather than a selection of footnotes to a book of the same title, it does seem a respectable enough batch of items without any obvious rationale. I’ve not seen the book which goes along with it.

Mariem Hassan from Western Sahara is modern, post post-B.B. King, electric guitar but quiet, with surprising harmonies. Blueslike credentials and blues-fan appeal. The notes report that Nuru Kane from Senegal has some acquaintance with jazz and a range of North African music—the musicology is complex, like with a number of things here – and indeed he’s not far from a North American songster with acoustic guitar. His credentials as blues-like certainly match even the North American singer-scholar Corey Harris’s commendable version of “Special Rider Blues”, a Skip James classic. The worth of that one is seriously increased in interest by the late and here great Ali Farka Touré on a species of one-string fiddle, and a calabash player’s slapping percussion. The odd thing about this selection is that the notes name all the participants. Mostly we get only some facts at random in the inlay notes. Are they trying to sell the book?

The Malian Boubacar Traoré has lived and worked in Paris and sings in rather an African than a blues manner, with a string accompaniment not however without reminiscences of Skip James, and haunting suggestions of acoustic blues. No real complaint about the title so far. Overall, no complaint about the musical standard, but the blues connection becomes more tenuous from now on. Malian Oumou Sangare is, I read, a feminist, with gentle percussion and ethnic string support and not much blues resemblance in her singing, with a steady repeated refrain from other members of the ensemble. What instruments are being played, how many people are involved?

The ensemble Etran Finatawa are said to combine Tuareg and Wodaabe traditions from Niger, and to combine the polyphonic songs of Wodaabe tradition with modern instruments. There’s a nicely balanced pulsing bass guitar and an interesting combination of singing voices behind, against, and with the lead voice. Again now I don’t hear much blues, or much I’d easily hear as reflecting an influence into blues. Or take-up from blues. 
Afel Bocoum is a guitarist-singer with sometimes none, sometimes a lot, of vocal support. What is there beside his guitar? There’s apparently no connection between the fact that the two American singers included on the set both sing Skip James songs, and Afel Bocoum’s playing a guitar part which does suggest James’s distinctive Bentonia Mississippi style. Maybe Bentonia did carry over direct African elements into a local style represented on record only by James and by Jack Owens. Other legendary representatives, Jim Bunkley and Henry Stuckey, are represented only by the recollections of the scholars who discovered these guys, but couldn’t arrange to record them before they died. The influence of a Caribbean guitarist encountered by a Bentonia musician in First World War service in Europe has been cited as important for this unique music once played in a not un-European style on guitar, but harmonically all its own. Bocoum makes me wonder, as does the guitar accompaniment to Rokia Touré, lady with a very lovely voice, and a small harmonizing female chorus after the solo verses. Again I regret the lack of system in the notes.

The Ethiopian Ayaléw Mésfin is accompanied by the Black Lion Band, including saxophone and drums, in a rhythmically exciting performance whose nearest affinities combine antique ska, not loud, with something roughly North African. The vocal style is beyond my immediate powers of characterization. The music is so unlike blues, comparison is hardly feasible.

The opening of Djelimadi Tounkara’s “Sigui” is beautiful fingerpicked acoustic guitar. When that’s joined by a sound like harp or dulcimer, the effect isn’t that different from some nice attempts to vivify rural English material. This is delicate. During an instrumental interlude the guitar and other (again) unidentified instrument (kora) do however go into areas I can’t identify and would happily come back to.

Bob Brozman’s take on another Skip James number seems a bit coarse and undifferentiated vocally in comparison with the other items, but the quality of the performance is much the better for his being outclassed by the virtuoso kora playing of Djeli Moussa Diawara. That debluesifies the performance and makes this curiosity musically endearing.

Unaccompanied tenor saxophone opens Sudanese Rasha’s “Azara Alhai.” She has a remarkably attractive voice. The notes say that this is “probably one of the most beautiful songs on the album” – referring to her album Sudaniyat. It’s possibly the most beautiful song on this album under review. A divine voice, if the saxophone does jar just a little.

Daby Balde from South Senegal sings accompanied by impressive acoustic blues guitar. The fact that he’s photographed playing guitar suggests that he’s probably the one playing. Presumably it’s also him singing along with himself through electronic echo. On Baaba Maal and Mansour Seck’s “Bibbe Leyde”, I suppose they’re playing two guitars (or is it one guitar and something else, or one of them switching in the course of the performance to thumb piano, or … what?), with more (electronically?) echoed vocals. For years blues CDs have managed informative comment and personnel details on rather less paper than was used for this one. This is a compilation of one track each from a range of CDs, and could serve as a sampler. It’s a nice, varied listen anyway.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/various-artists-rough-guide-to-african-blues/