The album searches for a framework that will suit its star, trying this and that, probing. It wants to sell her, but how?
The Malian singer Bako Dagnon has been around for years, growing steadily venerable, contributing to other peoples' albums here and there. In 2007 she had her first western solo release, Titati. Sidiba is the follow-up. Her English-language publicity material targets people who listen to Salif Keita or the late Ali Farka Touré, other Malians performing modern versions of traditional material. Yet it might be more useful to compare her to Kandia Kouyaté, a superlative singer whose voice was silenced several years ago by a stroke. Kouyaté is still alive; her international career is not. I admit I was hoping for, not a replacement, but a reminder that voices like that could exist. Dagnon's voice is weathered, a little splitty around the fringes, and if she could once carry a note for a long way, as Keita can, and as Kouyaté could, then it seems she can't any more, or chooses not to. She has Kouyaté's classical declamatory style but not her unerring power, her air of a limitless force that can be expended forever without running out, a voice running on solar power in a world of eternal sunshine.
The songs alternate longer movements with shorter ones: the shorter parts are rapid, words delivered quickly, almost as if the singer is muttering -- but the singing is too clear and firm to be mistaken for a mutter. In the longer parts the singer cries out, she throws the words forward as if launching arrows at a target. This is the place where the prolonged notes would be, if Dagnon sang them. Instead she goes for a distance then cuts short -- not short short, but shorter than this would be if Kouyaté or Keita had been singing. The effect is still grand. We are not being invited to join in, to cuddle down and nestle with the singer, we are being told to attend, and listen in wonder to a sound that is beyond us. If newsreaders would only sing like this, then the news would be terrifying.
The perfection of the instruments and the polished quality of the choruses on Sidiba sometimes seem to mock her. These choruses are sung by younger women, women with nicer, more conventional voices, voices neatly calibrated, ending a note or a word precisely in unison -- and there are times when Dagnon's voice sounds out of place, as if something messy has landed in a showroom decorated all in whites and creams by Ikea. The album searches for a framework that will suit its star, trying this and that, probing. It wants to sell her, but how? At first it fiddles with the choruses and perfect koras. Later on "Badjigui" it brings in an accompaniment that sounds so much like Soul Science that I began to wonder if Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara were involved. "Le Guide de la Révolution" borrows a deep, rolling backing from Keita's M'Bemba. Both Keita and Dagnon worked with the same musical arranger, François Bréant. The deep roll is more flattering than the instruments and choruses -- the plain sound gives her voice room to move. Finally, in the second-last song, "Fadeen To", they hit a kind of perfect mixture: strings and booms combined with finger-clicks so ghostly you barely know they're there, and her voice powering through. The idiosyncrasies that the other tracks try to hide stand out and become positive qualities. With her breaths and tics exposed she becomes more of a person.
Then they kill the song with a meaningless flamenco guitar. Sidiba suffers from a problem that Kouyaté faced with her first international album, Kita Kan: an over-abundance of accompaniment. The second album was stripped down, and better. Dagnon would benefit from the same treatment. Right now it's as if she thinks the audience needs to be constantly poked and tweaked and coaxed with new toys, pretty-girl choruses, flamenco, a ritti -- well no, we don't: get rid of them. We're here to see you. Give us that.