The sounds of contemporary Malian and West African music often known as “desert blues” first made global waves as a major part of the world music scene in the 1980s, when Ali Farka Touré’s self-titled 1988 album found a home on BBC airwaves and his music became one of the first major commercial hits for the World Circuit label. Its similarity to blues styles of the American South has made the genre one with international staying power. Like delta blues, desert blues as a style has infinite adaptability, and the decades since Ali Farka Touré have seen iterations of the genre that include Hendrix-style rock, upbeat hints of reggae, and folk traditions of Saharan groups like the Tuareg. Few categories of music have experienced such longevity of popularity within the oft-challenged (and oft-challenging) world music genre as desert blues, and it follows logically that this sheer capacity for constant change has much to do with that.
Sometimes, though, the most prototypical form of a genre can yield the most striking results. On Wande, an album whose name translates to “the beloved”, guitarist Samba Touré emulates his mentor, the late Ali Farka Touré, himself often compared to guitar legends like John Lee Hooker. Like Ali Farka Touré’s, Samba’s is a straightforward execution of Malian blues, stripped down to its fundamentals: guitar that both emotes well and is technically brilliant, and lyrics that directly speak to the issues on Touré’s mind, be they personal, political, or a mixture of the two.
Touré’s focus on the core of blues hits hard on opening track “Yo Pouhala / Blah Blah Blah”, a song scolding those who stir up gossip and conflict rather than being productive and solving problems. Driving the song forward is a sharp combination of guitar and barely-there skeletal taps that lead into minimal percussive accompaniment – including the versatile tama talking drum – for Touré’s relaxed voice and nimble axe. These are spacious pieces, giving Touré room to embellish each simple line and for rhythm guitar to ring out, as it does on sedate and sweet-natured “Hawah” and “Wande”, tributes to Touré’s loved ones.
On other tracks, Touré brings more rhythm and energy. “Yerfara / We Are Tired” urges people to look at larger issues rather than get caught up in smaller annoyances, while “Goy Boyro / The Good Work” reminds wanderlusty youth that by staying and working in their home country, they can make Mali a better place. Later, “Mana Yero Koy / Where To Go?” laments the state of the world as a whole, urgency in each beat. “Hayame / Be Careful!” begins with a freeform string introduction that quickly grows into one of the album’s most compelling melodies as the artist counsels his listeners that human nature often leads to more problems than any outside forces.
A soft, bittersweet ending to the album, “Tribute to Zoumana Tereta” incorporates lilting sokou fiddle samples from the titular Tereta in a heartfelt homage to one of Touré’s longtime collaborators. Like every song on Wande, the song comes directly from Touré, its sentiments genuine and its structure inspired, blissful without being overwrought. Samba Touré’s background is undoubtedly an impressive one, but the real beauty of Wande is that Touré never sounds as though being impressive is on his mind. Each of his compositions speaks a truth, both through words and through well-played, understated music.