The talent, if not the ego, of prodigious Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure tended to eclipse the accomplishments of his accompanists. But now that Toure has retired to his family farm with a Grammy-winning disc under his arm, one of his band members is making good on Toure's desire that he succeed him as Mali's king of the Sahel blues. After playing in Toure's band ASCO for 30 years (when he wasn't busy scraping a hoe across a dry field next to Toure's own countryside plot near the village of Niafunke), Afel Bocoum steps into the spotlight on his first CD, Alkibar. That's the name of Bocoum's group, a word that translates as "Messenger of the Great River." It's also a concept that pretty much characterizes the flow of this music: fresher and decidedly more lived-in than most amplified African genres I've heard in a long time.
Bocoum borrows Toure as a guest player on a couple of cuts, but retains a North African sound all his own, led by his arch-top acoustic guitar and backed by a female chorus that calls down a nomadic Tuareg influence. Adjembe hand drum and clicking calabash backbeats played softly at the rhythm of a loping walk contribute to the spooky windswept vibes. The acoustic intensity conjures vague ripples of anxiety, thanks to the combination of circular melodies, staccato notes from the string players, microtonal singing, percussive quirkiness, and an impending sense of voices about to break through from the Next World. The eerie undercurrent is partly owing to repetitive song structures that evoke a lonely protoblues feel from the part of Africa that helped shaped the American form, and partly owing to the use of odd-sounding instruments such as the njurkle guitar and njarka violin. Bocoum calls these instruments "dangerous," because they're traditionally used to communicate with spirits.
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A glance at the cover of Alkibar serves as notice that we're certainly far from mainstream pop territory. Dressed in Sonrai robes and giving the thumbs-up sign, Bocoum is nearly crowded out of the photograph by a pair of small boys hefting a dusty PA horn and a studio-monitor-size speaker on their heads. It's modern music, the picture says, but modern in the context of an isolated Malian village.