Senegalese griot needs to do more to stand out.
Amadou Diagne possesses a soulful voice and a deft hand with the guitar, and his songs might put a listener in mind of Mansour Seck or even the softer side of Salif Keita. Winner of the World Music Network's Battle of the Bands competition, Diagne does a lot of things right on his debut album, Introducing Amadou Diagne. His songs establish a reflective, rainy-day mood from the get-go, rarely deviating from that tone. For all that, though, the record feels a bit flat, and it fails to make much impression even after repeated listenings. It's unfair to call it by-the-numbers, but it does feel as though Diagne is playing it a bit safe here.
Let's start with the good. Diagne's voice is raspy and expressive, a syrupy gutteral growl that is also capable of melodic sweetness. On opener "Senegal," he uses this instrument to good effect, allowing an unadorned backdrop of plucked guitar arpeggios to set the tone. This is, in fact, the album's default setting: dextrous acoustic finger-picking offset against Diagne's raspy-sweet vocals. It features in most of the tunes here, including "Kharit", "Yaro", and the less-powerful-than-it-should-be "Africa Stop War" — a song which means well but doesn't make much musical impression. There are frequent low-key contributions from talking drums, calabash, and lots of percussion instruments. The overwhelming body of work, though, consists of vocals and acoustic guitar.
This isn't necessarily a problem in and of itself, but it does point to a certain sameness of approach throughout the record — so much so that the saxaphone accents on "Yonbi" or the gentle cello line in the background of "Talibé" stand out as being unusually innovative.
If anything, the back half of the album sticks to the formula even more than the first. There are any number of good, solid songs here — "Dabagh", "Jigeen", and "Yoman Khyam" are all well performed, and some benefit from some competent vocal harmonies. But listening to them one after the other, along with relatively unmemorable numbers like "Suma Dom" and album closer "Mam", causes them to blur together. There is simply too much similarity in instrumentation and approach for these 13 tracks to differentiate themselves. It doesn't help that the majority are in the four-to-six minute range, all falling into the same downtempo or midtempo groove.
This is by no means a bad record, and Diagne is a talented songwriter and performer. It's easy to imagine a situation in which this album could set a tone, or match a mood, and feel satisfying indeed. With so much good music coming out of Africa these days, though, this record seems almost a few years late. Evoking singers from Ismail Lo to Salif Keita, Diagne does a fine job of establishing his credentials and showing off his chops. What he doesn't do is establish a convincingly unique voice. Hopefully, that will come with the next album. Diagne has too much talent, and too expressive a voice, to remain silent for long.