It’s starting to feel — heady delusion — as if the rest of the globe is going to be able to relive 1970s West Africa completely just by bouncing from label to label. There’s Analog Africa for Benin; World Circuit for Orchestra Baobab; multiple labels for Ghana, Senegal, Mali; Fela Kuti enthusiasts for Nigeria; Honest Jon’s digging for the pre-’70s forebears — and see, retrospective compilations are assembled, whole albums burst up gasping from their hiding places, pushing through the dust like mushrooms, and those who have handed out massive amounts of money to own one of only ten copies of Rare Disc X, find that the person next door can all of a sudden listen to it in stereo for the price of Born This Way.
Names appear, new to the English-speaking extra-African world. Sorry Bamba has already surfaced on Luaka Bop’s World Psychedelic Classics 3, with a single track, and now here’s Thrill Jockey with ten of his songs on a compilation, which has been put together by two Americans — Alex Minoff and Ian Eagleson: members of the Kenyan-American benga-rock band Extra Golden. They are sensitive to charges of exploitation. Musicians from less powerful countries have been fleeced by labels from more powerful countries in the past. “It is important to note that this compilation was created with the direct input of Sorry Bamba himself,” they say.
Bamba released a new album, Dogon Blues just last year (after a long album drought), but his heyday lies undeniably in the period covered by Volume One, a time when Mali, his homeland, was one decade into its postcolonial independence. In an interview with Bertrand Lavaine, he remembers the biennial competitions that were held in Bamako to stimulate nationalism in the country’s musicians.
The rules included penalties for copying Cuban music and other fashionable styles of the time, and there was an obvious preference for national traditions. “That made us have a real think about what we could do.”
Bamba’s band, which went through several name changes, from Bani Jazz to the Regional Orchestra of Mopti – Mopti is both a region of Mali and an island city in the rivers of that region, a city that is, also, Bamba’s birthplace – and then the Kanaga Orchestra, blitzed these competitions more than once. “National traditions” are foremost in Volume One, the main exception being “Astan Kelly”, which waves a Cuban flag the size of a bedsheet all the way through the percussion. “Bayadjourou”‘s keyboard comes on with a toughness that it possibly discovered in foreign funk records. Actually, the keyboard in all of these tracks has terrific character — very flexible, very sensitive to the mood of the song, a significant team player. Along with the guitar, it gives “Yayoroba” a deep all-over thrum that pulls against the light rolling balloon of the Malian groove, holding its string, thickening the atmosphere, while Bamba sings against the chorus.
He doesn’t have a strong voice, but it gets the job done. Bamba is not a Kuti or a Franco. It’s a talent for leadership and composition that has put his name on the cover, not an amazing stage presence, or exceptional skill with an instrument. The band, en masse, has the starring role on this album. There’s not a solitary figurehead musician who stands out above the rest, although the keyboards, as I said, are good, and the guitars are as vivid as you’d expect, knowing that the period from the ’60s to the ’80s was a great time for African guitar in general – not the bluesier kind that we’ve come to expect from Mali but the brighter kind that started in the Congo and along the coast and moved inland and up. There are nice examples of it all the way through. There are nice examples of everything. This is a good substantial album, evidence (I hope) that now the labels have worked through the obvious names (the most startling ones), they’re prepared to dig deeper, going down to other levels, the less immediately startling, the capable competent hitmakers, inviting outsiders to compose a more rounded idea of the period, a deeper history, down in the direction of the everyday, the enabling loam.