As more and more compilations come out celebrating African music from the ’70s, it gets harder and harder to make each collection unique. At some point, the market has to get flooded, and we seem to be reaching — or perhaps we’re already past — that breaking point. Despite that uphill climb, there are still labels digging deep to give us new sounds from a golden age in Afro-beat and Afro-funk music. Analog Africa has, for 10 years, been at the forefront of this musical exploration and given us some of the finest compilations to date: Check their Legends of Benin if you haven’t yet.
And now they’re celebrating their 10th anniversary with another strong collection, Bambara Mystic Soul. The set is a bit more obscure than other compilations, digging into the music of Burkina Faso. This area of Africa south of the Sahara is an arid stretch of land that runs between Dakar and Djibouti, but it produced some great music after gaining independence from French occupation. It’s a sound very much in line with sounds you’ve heard from other areas — Nigeria, Benin, Dakar — but it’s got its own unique mix of influences that make Burkinabe music unique and vibrant, and this collection reveals yet another gem in the world of African music.
The strength of this music actually came out in competition. Despite post-independence political instability, an urban middle class grew in Burkina Faso from which a glut of singers and musicians blossomed. Most importantly, perhaps, emerged two competing labels — Volta Discobel and Club Voltaique Du (CVD) — and in battling for the modern music in the region, they challenged good bands to become great. Judging from the collection here, the ones that were up to the task thrived, as did both labels.
The sounds here are pulled from a variety of influences outside of Burkinabe music. It distinguishes itself from Nigerian Afro-beat, for example, by sanding down the hard edge of that sound. Instead, there is an undercurrent of Afro-Latin sound, brought over from Cuba, that smoothes out many of these songs. They can go from lean, as on Amadou Ballake’s guitar-driven opener “Bar Konou Mousso”, to the rattling jams of longer tracks like “Mangue Konde Et Les Super Monde’s “Kabendo”, where the shuffling percussion shows the Latin influence most clearly. Other tracks, like Mamo Lagbema’s “Love, Music, and Dance”, show the ever-present influence of Western soul on the Afro-beat sound. Meanwhile, Afro Soul System’s “Tink Tank” shows a wholly unique and murky take on all of these sounds. The guitars here are downright psychedelic and off-kilter and excellent, and the rhythm section digs in and trudges forward with a scowling force. Even if you’ve heard 100 African music compilations in the past few years, Afro Soul System’s work will catch you off guard in the best way.
In the end, though, Bambara Soul Mystic belongs mostly to one man: Amadou Ballake. Of the 16 tracks here, Ballake is featured on six, and with good reason. He’s a national icon, and hearing his music here, you can see why. Ballake, working with different groups, shows a variety of talents that represents well the different sounds that make up Burkinabe music. The trickling melodies and rhythm of “Sali” owe as much to Asian and Islamic influences as they do to African music. “Johnny” uses more straightforward rock ‘n’ roll percussion, opening up holes for the wobbling guitars to ripple into. “Oye Ke Bara Kignan”, recorded with l’Orchestre Super Volta, merges the swaying Afro-Latin vibe with the hard-edged guitar sounds of Mali and Nigeria to brilliant effect. Through each of these sounds, Ballake also proves himself a soulful and charming singer, one that possesses as much impressive range as he does deep emotion.
While Ballake gets the most space here, proving his status as the most important figure in Burkinabe music, he also anchors what is a pretty impressive and diverse set of songs from a previously untapped resource. Bambara Soul Mystic achieves the consistency of some of the best Afro-beat comps out there — from Analog Africa and others — but what makes it great is that it also makes its own unique mark. It only takes one listen to see the new ground this music covers that like compilations don’t, and subsequent listens after only reveal more wonderful, tuneful surprises.