The concept of “world music” is a dangerous one, rife with traps and pitfalls and often populated by compilation albums that skim the surface of a nation or even an entire continent for easy, digestible musical selections without offering any real depth. Putumayo Presents and the Rough Guide releases offer good starting points, but to provide true insight into a culture requires much more than most compilations can provide.
Bobo Yéyé is not like most compilations. Its three discs, coupled with nearly 150 pages of beautiful black-and-white photos from local photographer Sory Sanlé, band profiles, and brief interviews, offer a fascinating history of the first few decades following the liberation of landlocked African nation Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso). Parts of the story are familiar ones: the Scramble for Africa, decades of colonization, independence, and then a further struggle for stability and national identity. It is this sense of identity that Bobo Yéyé demonstrates and personalizes, putting faces and sounds together as it traces a path through the independent nation’s youth with painstakingly chosen sounds and images of 1970s Upper Volta.
Much of the album follows the career of Upper Voltaic superstar Tidiani Coulibaly; the first disc is devoted to Volta Jazz, an orchestra he sometimes led, and the second to his band Dafra Star, founded after a schism in Volta Jazz. While both groups benefited from his artistic vision, each one has its own distinct texture and structure. Volta Jazz has a big band sound, with buoyant hints of brassy highlife and Afro-Cuban influences, especially noticeable here on the fast-moving and danceable “Wêrê Wêrê Magni” and more relaxed “Cherie Nawa”. Volta Jazz aims to uplift, and in 1970s Upper Volta, it did so at political balls for one of the most crucial pan-African parties in the region, creating music in the same vein as African jazz groups from Mali through the vast Congo, always with a strong sense of nationalism.
Dafra Star’s music pulls away from jazz and makes music with heavier, more intriguing rhythms and a greater emphasis on both traditional balafon and more modern electronic instruments. For instance, “Si Tu Maime” borders on the psychedelic with plugged-in organ and guitar backing up Coulibaly’s passionate lyrics, while “Sie Koumgolo” rides a roller coaster of syncopated percussion into a hypnotic keyboard line with the potential for perpetual motion. The sounds here are more explosive than the more straightforward Volta Jazz tracks, and even when the songs are simpler, as in catchy Afropop duet “Yafamma” with Amadou Balaké and the swaying repetitions of “Sondja Magni”, they have enough forward momentum to take them from swinging background jazz to choice dance floor picks.
On the box set’s final disc, a few other groups get their chance to shine. These last tracks tend to be rough, with lower production values and a thinner, more amateur sound, but they’re no less interesting in context. Known as “The People’s Orchestra” for their political activism and led by a former Volta Jazz singer, Echo Del Africa plays a couple of cool, slightly off-key singles, one of which was recorded with a single microphone. Les Imbattables Léopards tends toward a bigger, more Latin-influenced sound, showcasing flute on “Nene” and saxophone everywhere else. Idy Oldrissa goes solo and gets soulful on ballad “Arindo”, while Ouedraogo Youssef indulges in delightfully rapid and complex organ lines on “He Ya Wannan”. After two solid marathons through the careers of Coulibaly groups, this final set of songs makes for a refreshingly diverse group, and though the quality varies, each track deserves at least a little attention.
The role of art and musicians in Burkina Faso’s recent history is not to be underestimated, and comes with an unexpected twist: Marxist revolutionary and jazz guitarist Thomas Sankara (not featured on any of the tracks in the Bobo Yéyé set) would become president in a 1983 coup that would radically change the political landscape of Upper Volta and see it renamed as Burkina Faso. Among the many controversial changes that came into play in that time period were shifts that effectively ended many popular musicians’ careers, like national curfews and brighter lights in clubs meant to dissuade any new revolutions. Sankara would be assassinated in another coup only four and a half years after taking power, but the damage to that crop of musicians was already done.
Full of rich history and good music, Bobo Yéyé is a goldmine for musical history buffs and an excellent purchase for even casual listeners in need of a little more African jazz—and who doesn’t fall into one of those categories? Appreciated correctly, this is more than a quick crash course or a tiny window into history. There’s a lot to be learned from this compilation, and probably no better place outside of Burkina Faso itself to learn it.