If you wanted to oversimplify the short history of Afro-pop into neat categories, it would be easy. King Sunny Ade has the beats, Youssou N'Dour has the hits, and Salif Keita has the voice. But even that summation would need some updating with the release of Keita's sixth album, Papa, because now Keita, often called "The Golden Voice of Mali," has got groove as well.
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Papa, coproduced by former Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, showcases Keita's agile voice to incredible effect. Singing in his native Bambara, he bounds through each track's richly layered textures with an almost eerie ease. Keita's striking high-register twists and turns sometimes follow a more North African melodic line, giving an Arabic tinge to the mix of West African and funk rhythms, and producing an altogether unconventional hybrid. But Papa is as much about the bottom as it is about the top. A handful of the tracks here are such fireballs of Afro-funk that they sound like the imaginary result of George Clinton taking his entourage to West Africa and staying there. The African-P-Funk connection is strongest on the two opening tracks: "Bolon," with a hypnotic bass groove as heavy as "Atomic Dog," and "Mama," with its fusion of trip-hoppy bass loops and layered Afro-pop guitar lines that gathers an irresistible trancelike momentum.
The album loses a bit of steam in the middle when it begins to follow the First Law of Afro-pop Albums ("Thou Shalt Include At Least One Syrupy Ballad with Crossover Potential") a little too strictly, with "Ananamin" and "Sada" both sounding like self-conscious plays for international pop appeal. But the pop sheen of those moments is far outweighed by the dazzling African elements elsewhere, like the beautiful mix of guitar, cora, and balafon on "Abede" and the dizzying polyrhythms on "Together."
Recorded by a mix of musicians in Bamako, Mali, and New York City (and including some tasty work by organist John Medeski), Papa is at its best when its African and Western elements meet without blending. It's on moments like these when the album flies into uncharted territory, like the scorched-earth Reid guitar solo that screams above a tapestry of crossrhythms and Afro-pop guitar lines on "Together (Gnokon Fe)," the gorgeous mix of Keita's incantatory voice with cello and flamenco guitar on "Tomorrow (Sadio)," and the percussion-fueled dance-floor power of "Bolon."
Too many Afro-pop albums sound like watered-down versions of the real thing; Keita has until now been no exception. Papa is a welcome change, and its booty-pushing textures finally give Keita's voice the backdrop it deserves. -- Ezra Gale