Malian-born singer and guitarist Sidi Touré has been a musical force since at least 1984, when he won the competition for Best Singer at the Mali National Bienale. His 1998 album, Hoga, showcases his slightly reedy voice and a fluid, eloquent fingerpicking guitar style reminiscent of Mansour Seck. Touré’s skill has earned him a strong following in his native country.
His new record Sahel Folk proves to be a collaboration of sorts: on each track, Touré teams up with another musician to record a series of one-of-a-kind tracks. According to publicity information, the recording schedule followed a set patten; on the first day, Touré met with the other musician to drink tea, discuss songs, and jam. On the second day, the pair went into Salif Keita’s Bamoko studio and laid down the track in a single afternoon. The result is a record filled with warm, intimate performances, performed by a series of musicians at the top of their form.
Frustratingly, the publicity reveals next to nothing about the collaborators on these songs, so we are given no information about the vocalist on “Adema” or who is playing the second guitar on “Sinji.” Given the delightful way the two guitarists intertwine throughout the song, both instrumentally and vocally, the lack of information is bewildering.
Despite this, the music is easy to fall into. The instrumentation is entirely acoustic, which lends a warm, organic vibe to the whole affair but one which may not thrill aficianados of bass-heavy Afro-pop. The record finds its groove very quickly, both on uptempo tunes like “Djarii Ber”, with its gallopping rhythm and harmony vocals, and on slower, laid-back numbers like the dreamy “Bera Nay Wassa”. Opening track “Bon Koum” sets the tone with its back-and-forth guitar and Dourra Cisse’s vocals alternating with Toure’s over steady, fingerpicking.
Standout tracks are many, and every cut brings something new to the table. The epic “Taray Kongo” clocks in at a hair under ten minutes and is probably the centerpiece of the album. Featuring a loping, off-kilter kuntigui rhythm by Jambala Maiga laid atop the more serene guitar, the song somehow coheres even as it sounds one step away from spinning into the ether; it also sports a faintly sinister spoken chant that serves to stitch verses together. “Haallah”, meanwhile, deserves mention for its trance-like groove. Only four minutes long, it nonetheless manages to transport the listener to a faraway place and could easily have been three times as long.
“Artiatanat”, a duet with Yahiya Arby, closes the record in style. A reflective tune built around steady guitar plucking and gentle twinned vocals, with occasional solo runs that bounce across the undercurrent, the tune provides the listener with a gentle but vigorous sendoff.
This record is a treat for listeners: an exquisite, nuanced collection of strong performances. It will dazzle no one with loud, booty-shaking grooves, preferring to captivate listeners with heartfelt performances and musical virtuosity. Listeners looking for something to capture the similar vibe of Baaba Maal and Mansour Seck’s landmark of West African acoustic guitar music, Djam Leelii, will find much to savor here.