Malian vocalist and composer Salif Keita was an early victim of the dreaded West African Bombast Virus. This insidious disease can have devastating effects on an artist's songwriting ability, directly attacking the tasteful-arrangement gene and bloating the neurotransmitters responsible for crafting succinct musical statements. Symptoms include an acute depletion of traditional source material and the retention of European pop formats accompanied by the rapid growth of non-organic filigree. The most serious cases give rise to a secondary infection by French cabaret styles.
On Moffou (Decca), Keita performs the strict regimen demonstrated by fellow Bombast sufferer Baaba Maal, who inoculated himself against electronic excess in 2001 with his back-to-the-roots record Missing You (Mi Yeewnii). Keita follows suit by hugging African sources as if his artistic life depended on them via a collection of mostly acoustic tracks -- though he still can't resist plugging in what sounds like an uncredited synthesizer and letting it wash across the background of some of the fuller cuts. A handful of the songs are as stripped-down as any music Keita has ever made apart from singing in the shower, and to their credit these slow movers slough off the vocal acrobatics you might expect from one of Africa's finest throat men in favor of surrendering themselves to honest emotion.
Moffou immediately sets an uncharacteristic tone of understatement with disc opener "Yamore." Hoisting a gentle swing borrowed from Cape Verdean mourna, Keita trades verses with mourna queen Cesaria Evora, matching the quiet elegance of her smoky voice with such eerie ease it's tricky telling the two apart. The backing singers nearly elbow Evora and Keita right off the stage with their propulsive interjections, but the pair holds on to Kante Manfila's chiming Spanish guitar, Benoît Urbain's urbane accordion, and the insistent lapping beat. By song's end, the mood is resolute if not positively triumphant.
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The majority of tunes on the album are plucked from Bambara and Malinké traditions, including the neo-griot jolly jali romp "Madan," which posits a pair of ngoni lutes and Djelly Moussa Kouyaté's electric guitar in a whirligig of a parched- climate rumba. The usually serious Keita emotes serious fun on this cut, launching grunts at his female vocalists while congas, tama, djembé, and assorted percussion crackle to the bounce of a been-everywhere bass guitar. "Moussoldu" finds our man in his familiar thoughtful mode, wielding a light touch but lofty tones to address a string-instrument pulse and low notes on an electric guitar that resemble distant horns. On "Ana Na Ming" pure longing takes the fore in a tune that dreams up an imaginary female companion as Keita twiddles his thumbs alone on an island. His singing is so sweet, the lack of a translation to the song lyrics hurts. "Koukou" pushes local sources to their furthest point. Guitars, ngoni, and David Aubaile's flutes merge and tumble so tightly their mesh suggests a sampled, sequenced lick, but the touch is far too complex and joyful for mere microchips to muster.
Keita maintains the grandeur, passion, and even the epic quality of his earlier albums without the bloat that often made them chair-squirmers to sit through. Fellow Bombast Virus victim Youssou N'Dour also beats the bug this time around as he achieves the apex of singer-songwriter professionalism on his sophisticated return to African instrumentation, Nothing's in Vain (Coono de Réér) (Nonesuch Records). But professionalism isn't a match for authenticity. While Keita splits open his soul, N'Dour is frequently measured even as he spins one appealing song after another. Keita sounds as if he were singing with an actual ensemble on Moffou. N'Dour's record feels like the Senegalese superstar is standing at a studio microphone capping a raft of prerecorded tracks with brilliant vocal performances. This may not amount to much of a criticism, since few people ever bought a Frank Sinatra album because they wanted to hear Nelson Riddle's orchestra, but it does add an element of disconnect that slightly flattens the impact of an otherwise fine album.
Nobody else merges African and Western music with anything approaching N'Dour's deftness. He might as well be blending spring water with tap water on the buoyant "Li Ma Weesu" ("As in a Mirror"). It's that difficult determining where the Senegalese influences end and the Western pop ideas begin. Wolof lyrics and rhythms ripple across a familiar European-style verse and chorus structure underpinned by a perfectly balanced ensemble of amplified and traditional instruments. But the distinctions don't remain this clear-cut. The female accompanists sing in non-Senegalese harmony, the tama and other hand drums lean toward ballad pacing, and N'Dour's hooky hopscotch falsetto lines borrow as heavily from his mbalax past as they do from Smokey Robinson.
Curiously enough, Nothing's most memorable cuts pile up at the end of the disc. "So Many Men" is a lovely vocal duet with Pascal Obispo lit by faux strings, electronic textures, interwoven voices, snatches of English lyrics, and few Senegalese flavorings. "Yaru (The Makings of Respect)" starts with a parsed muezzin-on-shortwave-radio voice, then glides into Youssou pitching his finest swooping, soaring vocal backed by the same southern African-inflected choir that encircles him on the syrupy but affable anthem "Africa, Dream Again." If no song here provides the immediate kick of "Live Television," the frantic energy of "Set," or the genuineness of "Old Tuscon" from his earlier albums, mature artistic expressions tend to be reflective rather than fiery. This is a record you have to live with a while, and it pays off in repeated listenings as N'Dour harnesses the power of traditional musical motifs to craft winning pop songs. Salif Keita uses his return to roots as an opportunity for rediscovery. That difference makes all the difference between these two records.