Music

Mamadou Diabate: Heritage

Phillip Buchan

Second album of virtuosic fusions of African and American song forms from this Malian native.


Mamadou Diabate

Heritage

Label: World Village
US Release Date: 2006-11-14
UK Release Date: 2006-12-04
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Heritage is an obvious title for Mamadou Diabate to choose. He comes from a family of masterful musicians: his father, Djelimory N'fa Diabate, played kora (the traditional 21-string harp that Mamadou also plays) in the renowned Instrumental Ensemble of Mali, and his cousin Toumani is one of contemporary Africa's most internationally acclaimed performers. Through collaborations, Diabate has helped African-American musicians channel the forms of their ancestors. In the decade he's lived in the US, he has embarked on such diasporic fusion projects with jazz artists like Roswell Rudd, Randy Weston, and Donald Byrd. And Diabate's solo recordings draw from centuries of Malian tradition. Since 2000's Tunga, he has revisited his home country's canon of jeli songs, music first played over a thousand years ago by courtly entertainers who also functioned as oral historians.

Diabate has also processed a number of Western musical forms, however, and his performances here break from and revise his aesthetic heritage as much as they uphold it. For starters, his ensemble is an unorthodox one for a jeli: groups do not typically feature percussion, but most of the pieces here contain talking drum and calabash (a modified gourd used as a rattle) accompaniment. Diabate transposes frequently, too, allowing his kora to assume roles played traditionally by lute ("Fali") and ballafon ("Yaribassa"). While the songs of the Mande people that he adapts focus in their original incarnations on vocalists, Diabate's group dispenses with lyrics, instead allowing virtuosic kora and balafon (a West African xylophone) solos to sing. Diabate's emphasis on solos is also unique, rooted more firmly in jazz and blues practices than in any jeli song forms.

"Joukouya", a traditional piece performed by Diabate's father in the 1960s, receives a new arrangement typical of the group leader's innovative style. The rhythm is reworked into a propulsive, almost angular groove befitting Eric Dolphy or Tortoise, with calabash, acoustic guitar and upright bass anchoring the piece. Diabate's kora states a verbose melody comparable to a baroque motif, and a fluid, mesmeric solo soon follows. Balafonist Balla Kouyate also solos, hammering dense, complex patterns. The piece's abundance of notes might sound showy if transcribed for, say, a reed quintet, but the musicians coax short, exact tones from their instruments, stating their themes with precision and then getting out of the way.

While "Joukouya" demonstrates most clearly jazz's influence on Diabate and his ensemble, a number of other pieces show how the blues have infiltrated his aesthetic. The crossover is an obvious one -- the Malian pentatonic scale in which Diabate often composes is close to America's blues scale -- that offers many possibilities. In "Foulaya", jabbing bent notes pepper Dijkorya Mory Kante's guitar solo, leaving him sounding not unlike Ali Farka Toure. And in "Sandra", the players all but play straight-up blues riffs. "Segou Blues" and "Ojiribah" also bear a strong blues influence, with Diabate performing in each a particularly articulate solo.

While these inspired fusions and displays of musicianship make Heritage a truly arresting work, the album's sound quality is a bit antiseptic, each instrument's timbre a bit too bright. As a result, the record heard in passing recalls the cookie-cutter world music of Putamaya compilations -- when one takes the time to listen closely, Heritage emerges as a distinguished set of songs, but the studio polish might preclude such careful evaluations.

That said, this album stands out as one very atypical for the world music marketplace. It features no drones or tribal rhythms to attract experimental music fans and primitivists. The musicians also make no concessions to the pop music world -- which is fitting, as jeli is a courtly form rather than a folk form. And with Diabate's significant revisions, this work is nearly as much a reflection of American music-making as African. So don't approach Heritage expecting a crash course in ethnomusicology or cultural studies. Diabate's vision is highly personal.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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