A Malian songhaï blues hero makes a convincing case for international renown.
Malian music has certainly received a commendable amount of exposure and interest from prominent Western mouthpieces in the new millennium. Everyone from respected popular musicians like Damon Albarn to perennial hunk and sometime dragon-slayer Matthew McConaughey have expressed their interest in music from Mali in different ways. There are plenty of good reasons for this -- compelling rhythms, melodic vocals, a nice balance between complexity and repetition, and, particularly in the songhaï blues genre that we are mainly concerned with here, elements in song structure that are familiar to people who are accustomed to blues-based Western popular music.
Will Malian music be the Next Big Thing and revolutionize world popular music? I seriously doubt it, but with any luck it will turn enough heads to broaden the horizons of folks who think that having an eclectic taste in music means that you like Skrillex and Kanye West.
This brings us to the artist in question, Sidi Touré, and his new record, Alafia. Touré has already achieved a great deal of success in his home country, and now he is looking to win over an international market, although his interests, both musically and lyrically, still remain closely concerned with Mali. According to my trusty Thrill Jockey press release (more on that stalwart, ever-respectable label in a moment), Alafia translates to "peace" in Touré’s native tongue songhaï, although Touré’s home has been experiencing an alarming lack of peace since 2012. Mali has previously enjoyed more stability than most other countries in the region, but in the last 18 months has suffered from an Islamic Fundamentalist insurgence in the north, a disastrous coups d’état in the capital Bamako, and a general falling apart of its much remarked upon stability. None of this has escaped the attention of Sidi Touré, and on Alafia Touré attempts to unpack the difficult situation that he and his country find themselves in, even as he is forced to record the majority of Alafia in France as a result of the above-mentioned strife.
Thrill Jockey records will always be synonymous, at least in my mind, with their good old days in the 1990s when they released landmark records by bands like the Sea and Cake, Trans Am, and Tortoise. This correlation is not as far off the mark regarding Sidi Touré as it might seem; Touré shares, particularly with the Sea and Cake and Tortoise, a sense of bright, driving, danceability married to technical precision. This is not to say that Touré can be lumped into the same jazzy post-rock genre that made Thrill Jockey famous, but the part of me that still loves records like TNT and One Bedroom is the same part of me that bobs his head and wiggles his butt to Alafia. To properly appreciate Sidi Touré, as with any other musician, one must place him in the musical and cultural context in which he is working; however, for those of us who are still wrapping our minds around Malian music and genres like songhaï blues, such comparisons can go a long way towards making the unfamiliar familiar.
Alafia is filled with both tension and excitement. It seems to exude optimism and anxiety simultaneously. For those of us who do not understand the words that Sidi Touré is singing, most of those feelings are coming from the music itself and the sound rather than the linguistic signification of the vocals. This stuff is engaging and accessible; it reminds us, lest we forget, that there is so much more going on in contemporary music than what is being performed on the main stages of Lollapalooza and Coachella.