If you’ve got more than a passing interest in Malian music — if you own a copy of Segu Blue, if you never expect to see another Kandia Kouyate album but secretly hope that you will, if you know why Boubacar Traore sounds sad, if you reacted to the news of Dimanche A Bamako with, “Hey, Amadou and Mariam!” rather than, “Hey, Manu Chao!” or “Hey, what?”, and if you felt a shock of loss when Ali Farka Touré died — then you’ve already heard parts of this Rough Guide compilation. The track listing is peopled with familiar names. Here’s Tinariwen, yes, and Rokia Traore. Here’s Toumani Diabate in a duet with Touré, and here’s Touré again sharing a track with his son Vieux. And here he is once more, this time lending his name to the title of a song by Afel Bocoum. Habib Koité? Here, too.
The first thing I felt when I saw this line-up was irritation. Music store compilation, I wrote. In other words, you can find most of these musicians in any Western music store with a fair-sized world music section. You can find these very songs. This is not an insider’s disc. These are popular musicians playing tracks from popular albums. In the case of Amadou and Mariam, the compiler hasn’t even looked for an obscurity, which would surely be possible, given that they already had a back catalogue by the time they signed with a European label. Reading the track listing, I felt that I was looking at an opportunity wasted. There must be any number of good musicians in Mali — must be, since they keep unearthing new ones — yet here we had the same old faces, back again: Diabate, Touré, et al. “This could have been a chance for us to discover some new people,” I thought, “tonnes of them, or an unexpected new vein of Malian music that hasn’t been trumpeted in the world music press, and they’ve blown it for us.”
Oh, but, but. Never mind all of that. Throw it out. Ignore it. Listen. This compilation is beautiful. It is sublime. The tracks have been put in such perfect order that it feels like an act of magic. Habib Koité’s music has bored me in the past, but when I reach him here, I’m hearing him with new ears. With surprise, I realise that I want to listen to one of his albums. Even Tinariwen sounds like a new band. Where some other Rough Guides hand you a region — Central Asia, Tanzania — in the form of a smorgasbord, incorporating as many types of music as possible, trying to show you the place from several different angles in a single album, this Rough Guide to Mali has been shaped to give you one idea, one direct impression. The Mali of this compilation is a serene country, ripe with strings and voices. It lopes from one song to the next, changing its musicians, but not its character. The album emits a charged atmosphere of calm. This is its steady core of selfhood. Even Amadou and Mariam’s “La Realité”, stabbed through as it is with Manu Chao’s usual sirens and horns, puts down its frenetic edge for a few minutes.
Mali only stumbles on the last track, a wordless version of Gershwin’s “Summertime” performed with guitar and balafon and renamed “Summertime in Bamako”. The familiar tune was probably supposed to send us out smiling, but coming after Tinariwen and Boubacar Traore this, tinky-tonk rendition sounds lightweight and throws off the end of the CD. It’s as if you’d followed Robert Johnson with a lounge singer. If this had happened in a less perfect compilation, I don’t think I would have noticed it, or, if I’d noticed, it wouldn’t have bothered me too much. Here, it stands out. The Rough Guide to the Music of Mali needs a new ending. Aside from that one thing, it’s gorgeous, an album that is paradoxically almost redundant and almost perfect.