One of the surprising characteristics of African popular music is how sweet and uplifting much of it is in stark contrast to the difficult circumstances from which it sometimes arises. One strand of that long history is Kimi Djabaté, a multi-instrumentalist born and raised in the West African country of Guinea-Bissou. A musical prodigy on the wooden xylophone-like balafon, Djabaté was sometimes forced by his family to perform to earn money, so he could not just be a kid like other children.
Decades later, Djabaté is now based in Lisbon and has released his fourth album, Dindin, which means “children”. In the title song, he gently calls, in his home language Mandinga, for people to let children be children, to let them play and not exploit them. Djabaté sings a plea not to hurt children and to lift the next generation through education and helping them be better human beings.
The hypnotic rhythms, glittering guitar, and billowing multi-tracked vocals wrap the cautionary message in a somewhat deceptively lovely package. He sings: “If you hurt a child /They will carry that wound for life / If you hurt people / They will carry that wound through life / If you harm a child / They will carry that wound through life.”
All of Dindin percolates with joyful, effervescent rhythms, supported by a raft of hand-played percussion, mixing traditional acoustic African instruments such as the kora harp-lute with electric guitars and keyboards. While most songs have a deep, contagious groove to get you moving, they do it without the serrated edge that often propels rock and rap. The lighter-than-air sound of “Alidonka (Let’s Dance)” embodies the positive and affirmative message of the song’s lyrics. “Let’s take care of each other / Let’s dance / Let’s dance / It’s you that I want / The love of my life / Has arrived.”
“Afonhe”, with a reggae backbeat for a backbone and the crystalline sound of the balafon, starts the album off with the message of the importance of telling the truth among friends. “Kambem (Let’s Get United)” is a mid-tempo groove, but its poignant lyrics are a plea for Djabaté’s fellow Guineans to unite and overcome the big problems they face: child hunger, war, and injustice: “There has to be dialogue / Between us / Not war / A country doesn’t evolve without laws / Without justice / For everyone,” he sings with a weary earnestness.
The low-volume but high-speed rhythms of “O Manhe” features the honeyed falsetto of Fernando Fafe in a song advocating against forced arranged marriages. The skittering beats seem to belie the sobering message, though Djabate’s whispering vocals have a quiet urgency as he sings: “Listen / This isn’t right / Stop it / This has to stop / My people / It’s wrong to force a marriage / We all have right to choose.”
Djabaté slows down for the poignant “Na (Mother)”; the soft, slow percussion moves his evocative vocals, thanking his late mother and wishing her well. He turns to his grandparents in “Mbembalu”, updating the tradition of the African praise song, where Djabaté thanks and calls out by name his grandparents for giving him the gift of music and the griot storytelling tradition. Once again, the percussion and melodic instruments lock into a matrix of compelling rhythms as Djabaté’s vocal and a fleet kora melody dart above it all.
Introduced by the ringing wooden keys of the balafon, “Mana Mana” transitions to sparkly Congolese soukous-style guitars over an insistent trap drum set. Instead of being typical dancefloor romantic pleadings, it is about doing better by fellow Africans: “They are suffering / They are sick / Enough / They are suffering / They are sick / Stop mistreating them.” The locked-in-tight percussion matrix softly but insistently pushes this hip-winding protest song forward. The slow-building and heartfelt “Sano”, with soft glissades of the kora behind Djabaté’s singing, is the most elegiac tune here as he thanks an old friend: “You support griot culture / You help the helpless.”
The music may be unfamiliar to Western listeners, and indeed, few outside Guinea speak Mandinga, but Djabaté’s songs are easy to like, and even with a language barrier, the sweetness is inviting. It’s not music that necessarily builds to a climax but relishes luxuriating in the pocket of each groove. It’s danceable but has an easygoing sway, made for moving amid a warm clime and hardly breaking a sweat. Djabaté’s Dindin is an invitation to fellowship—to Africans and beyond—and a call to take care of the world’s unfinished business with kindness and compassion.