Issa Bagayogo: Tassoumakan

Issa Bagayogo
Six Degrees

Some people want their African music to sound really “authentically African”, whatever that means. Others want their African music to sound like other forms of music with which they are already comfortable. And then there are the fans of Issa Bagayogo, and a few others, who don’t mind when people just do whatever the hell they want to.

Bagayogo, who sings and plays the western African lute called n’goni, is known as “Techno Issa” in Mali. He and partner/producer Yves Wernert have released some of the warmest African electronic pop music of the last few years. With Tassoumakan, they’ve done it again, and probably better. This is just a great record, one that dances down the line between innovation and tradition and doesn’t mind ending up wherever.

A lot of the time, it’s kind of hard to tell or remember that there are electronics involved at all. “Ciew Mawele” rides on a tricky loop which feels and sounds organic; this makes it easier to maintain its easy conversational charm. Issa sings and talks, the backup singers wail softly, and then Madou Diallo comes in on flute, overblowing like this is a really funky Jethro Tull single. Opening tracks like this are rare, and must be cranked loudly.

Other songs are much more upfront about their intentions. “Furu” and “Diama Don” put their bubbling Kraftwerk synths right up front-or at least in one speaker-and lay their melodies on top. The former has some strange country-ish touches (fake jaw-harp, banjo-like n’goni work), and the latter is a straight-up Afrobeat dance number with some added slamming power chord action. Both are ineffably cool, African but not all Nat’l Geo about it.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, some of these songs do sound a lot more “traditional” than that. “Numu Koulouba” is call-and-response 6/4 funk-what sounds like a balafon is probably a synthesizer-and, until it shifts trickily in its second half, it could have come out any time in the last 20 years. (That second half has some great Linn drum sounds, it’s like “The Safety Dance,” kind of.)

It’s all extremely tasteful and pretty, Issa’s rough-edged voice is perfect whether it’s crooning or muttering, and it seems deep in a way that most other discs this year do not. This depth can turn boring when the melodies fall apart; “Kanou,” for example, which almost doesn’t exist except for the beauty and patience of its jazz noodling, or “Chauffeur,” which sounds exactly like “Ciew Mawele.” Songs like this show that there is a formula behind the Bagayogo/Wernert philosophy, but when the formula starts to take over the actual songs, it’s time to switch it up somewhat.

This record just sounds too much like the last two records, and too many of its tracks sound like each other. But this should only bother you if you’re a longtime fan. If not, forget this criticism and just dive right into Issa’s depths.