I came across Nuru Kane’s Riverboat debut album Sigil in 2006, the year it was released, and the word I kept in my mind to describe him afterwards was dry, not dry as a more monosyllabic substitute for laid-back or dispassionate or tongue-in-cheek – “dry wit”, nothing like that – but the sound itself did not behave like a liquid, it did not let its instruments relax and spread and make sensual puddles – it was the polar opposite of the slow funk groan, ohhh yeeahhh … – the expanding sound that promises you magic in the next five minutes or so if you’ll sit back and listen to this guitar solo first. Kane tends to move quickly, and he likes to pour everything on top of you right now, not saving up for the future but flinging out notes and chords at an upbeat speed with other instruments around him. Not every track is like that, but generally he’s a galloper and a noisemaker. His reggae number shifts casually into the territory of ska, reggae’s more excited cousin, and that development sounds like the most natural thing that could have happened to the song.
Yet acoustic: his speed is a human speed, not enhanced, and the notes have grubby edges, not too grubby, but rustic-grubby, like the rough finish left on a chair to make it look authentically hard-crafted and a little more expensive.
He was born in the Senegalese capital Dakar and moved later to France, like many other people from that former French colony. One of the songs is dedicated to his friend Abdoulaye and it is named after the French riverside town where you’re allowed to assume Abdoulaye might live, or at least a place where Kane himself might have lived for a period of time, “Issoire”. Sometimes he sings in French. “Yes We Kane” starts in English and flips languages across the channel. But the upper left part of Africa is the album’s key reference point and every song looks back there, to West Africa, to North Africa, looking back in the sound of the desert-music handclaps, in the guimbri that he sometimes plays, a three-stringed plucked thing with a long sausage-body like a hump stretched off a camel, in the fact that his dryness comes partly from the same West African bluesy sound that gave power to Ali Farka Toure et al, and even in the Euro-African borderland flamenco that he incorporates into “Corrido”, starting the song by calling out, “Amigo!” and going on with a self-developed species of tune that sounds Spanish and yet definitely not.
The guimbri is a Gnawa instrument and he likes gnawa so much that he borrows the word when he wants to give his own style a name: Baye Fall Gnawa, Baye Fall being a subset of the Mouride sufi and Kane himself being one of them, like Chiekh Lô, whose music doesn’t seem to have affected his at all. Lô is a steadier sound, Kane hops around. If Exile is a strong album then that’s because his style is strong, it can absorb everything he throws into it, a big smart cauldron. His self-assurance might actually be the album’s weak point: he’s so competent that you’re never surprised.