Under its previous name of Upper Volta, the landlocked nation of Burkina Faso has as long a history of beat-heavy pop music as any West African nation around it, but you would be hard-pressed to name many individual groups or artists in its 1970s and ’80s scene. While a handful of relatively recent compilations have made splashes – Analog Africa’s 2011 release Bambara Mystic Soul and Numero Group’s 2016 Bobo Yéyé are particularly noteworthy in highlighting a multitude of sounds – few single artist releases from the era have emerged in the modern day outside of various permutations of Coulibaly Tidiane and Dafra Star.
On Le Troubadour De La Savane, Born Bad Records attempts to bring forth a vintage pop star in the form of Pierre Sandwidi, the titular troubadour of Burkina Faso’s cultural revolution. Like many musicians of the time, his recorded works are few. Their style is distinct; while much of Sandwidi’s music falls into the same early, synth-heavy electrofunk category as contemporaries like Francis Bebey or William Onyeabor, a stronger lyrical focus is what earns Sandwidi his “troubadour from the bush” nickname. He sings at the front of a band that, at times, includes members of renowned groups like Super Volta, and while he generally takes the spotlight, he does make space for squiggly synth solos that punch up repetitive melodic lines.
His varied repertoire speaks volumes to Sandwidi’s versatility as an artist. Upbeat “Boy Cuisinier”, a song that touches on tensions between Europe and Africa, leaves the weight to the subject matter and keeps the beats light; on heartfelt ballad “Je Suis Un Salaud”, one of Sandwidi’s greatest hits, the singer hits peak crooning. B-side “Mam Ti Fou” brings horns and a more organ-esque sound into the mix for one of the more danceable tracks – one about loss of identity. Some of his overtly political titles – “Ouaga Affaires” and “Yamb Ney Capitale” – have some of the most captivating melodies, and Sandwidi’s tone makes the seriousness of his message clear.
After all that, though, it can still be hard to make the case for Pierre Sandwidi as an artist ripe for rediscovery. What made Sandwidi influential during his life was his social commentary, his ability to hold up a mirror to the issues of his time in a way that resonated with his audience. The audio quality on Le Troubadour is very much on the low end, and Sandwidi’s higher vocal register takes the brunt of the time-related degradation. While his writing remains historically significant and his sounds infectious, the release itself is one with limited appeal for all but at least semi-dedicated collectors of the time or place.
Pierre Sandwidi’s body of work is one that remains beloved in Burkina Faso. With crucial insight into Upper Voltaic politics and culture of the 1970s and ’80s, the value of having the singer’s recordings preserved is unquestionable. For that very same reason, Le Troubadour De La Savane requires an extra effort on the part of the listener, an appreciation that goes past superficialities. It is not always enough to take a surface-level look at the aesthetic qualities of Sandwidi’s music, as distorted and dissonant as the decades have often left it (unless you like things a little extra avant-garde). This is an album meant to be incorporated into a larger context of new independence and cultural revolution, and as that, it makes perfect sense. What it is not is an album meant for easy enjoyment, a quality that speaks to the integrity of the compilation in attempting to convey the full scope of Sandwidi’s oeuvre.