Music

Hama Sankaré Bridges Malian Blues Generations on 'Niafunké'

Photo courtesy of Clermont Music

Old and new Malian blues stars unite on calabash legend Hama Sankaré's latest solo album, Niafunké.

Niafunké
Hama Sankaré

Clermont Music

12 April 2019

One of the latest of Mali's heretofore unsung musical legends to embark on a solo career, Hama Sankaré (often known as Pedro) boasts blues credentials from across time. Primarily a percussionist and best known for his calabash technique, his hands and voice have graced recordings of Ali Farka Toure and Mamadou Kelly's BanKaiNa alike. Last year's Ballébé: Calling All Africans saw him emerge under his name for the first time. On Niafunke, Sankaré showcases his prowess once again as he takes the helm on his own compositions and arrangements. While the album will not sound surprising to the many who count themselves as fans of Malian blues rock, it is a technical feast for the ears in its own right. Niafunke reinforces bridges between generations by featuring both newer and older musicians of the Bamako scene.

Many of Sankaré's collaborators here are longtime colleagues. Backup vocalist Afel Bocoum and monochord player Yoro Cissé joined Sankaré on many an Ali Farka Toure recording, while ngoni player Kande Sissoko, like Sankaré, has collaborated in the past with Mamadou Kelly. Their expertise paves the way for relative newcomers Dramane Touré (holding down a steady bassline) and Makan Camara (holding down equally steady, if often lighter rhythms), and current national superstar Oumar Konaté, whose outstanding guitar work tends to rise to the top of every single arrangement. Rounding out the band's foundation are more guitar lines from Alibaba Traoré and backing vocals from Sékou Toure.

Sankaré sings with passion and know-how, leading call-and-response choruses over instrumental jams that are largely repetitive save for Konaté's parts. These, on the contrary, are electrifying and unpredictable, part high-energy Delta blues and part Hendrix-style psych-rock, enlivening their Saharan backdrop. He spurs on buoyant tracks like opener "Dewel Wegé", drives forward mid-tempo "Remobe", intensifies the majestic "Tiega Mali", and generally takes the group's music to fresh heights.

When Konaté's guitar stays out of the spotlight, the music, still excellent, takes on a more rootsy twang. The acoustic "Nojarro" features Bocoum's spoken word and Sankaré's melodic free verse against minimal strings and percussion. Meanwhile, warm "Solane" and "Cherie" rely on a strong feeling of camaraderie binding all the vocalists together. On the latter tracks, Konaté still has his moments of solo glory. But on the whole, the band has more of an opportunity to stay grounded in Sankaré's experience in the earthy early days of the modern Malian blues movement in popular culture.

Named for Hama Sankaré's hometown (as well as that of Ali Farka Touré, who also named an album for it), Niafunké joins a long and ever-growing discography of Malian-meets-Mississippian blues music. Already renowned as a key musical anchor in a number of famous bands, Sankaré here leverages his stature to bring his own strong, soothing voice to the forefront alongside rising talents. It's a way of giving to not only the next generation of musicians but to an audience who may not have known Sankaré from his early work. After hearing Niafunké, Sankaré's unpretentious charm and well-developed skills are undeniable.

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