The sheer strangeness of Manding "swing" music can be daunting. Sure, there are enough familiar elements, from amplified instrumentation to radio-friendly lengths that tell you in an instant that you're listening to pop. But the heightened sense of drama feels foreign, from the operatic intensity that courses through the vocals to the surge of the plucked instruments. The arrangements, though earthy and based on traditional Malian griot praise songs, wield a jazzy sophistication whose idiosyncratic sense of timing verges toward abstraction. It's syncopation in overdrive.
Super Rail Band de Bamako helped invent modern Manding "swing" music in the Seventies and launched the career of African superstar vocalists Mory Kante and Salif Keita. Kongo Sigui (World Village), the latest in a chain of too-far-apart releases, epitomizes everything that's alluring about Malian pop. First and foremost is Djelimady Tounkara, the guitarist tapped to appear in Buena Vista Social Club, which was originally conceived by Ry Cooder as a collaboration between West African and Cuban artists before scheduling conflicts caused Tounkara to cancel. While he certainly could have used the notoriety in the lean and hungry Nineties, hearing him here you can't help but rejoice that his fierce yet fluid phrasings haven't been flattened by the crossover bulldozer.
Tounkara is a standout among countless gifted African guitarists because he never bides his time waiting for a song to open into a solo. He creates his own openings instead. Even when providing the background beat for lead vocalists Damoury Kouyaté and Samba Sissoko, his inventiveness never ceases. His guitar lines on the title cut contain enough repetition to function as a fixed rhythmic anchor, yet the way he tinkers with melodic and phrasing variations turns his playing into subtle soloing, like a pianist in a jazz trio flexing his muscles to deepen the arc of a song.
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Sissoko shrugs off the inherent difficulty of the microtonal Manding singing style on "Balla Moussa Keita," which heaps praise on the memory of a distinguished Malian filmmaker. Rather than lazily climbing up and down a scale, as is typical in Western pop, Sissoko sharpshoots one short series of pitch-perfect phrases after another in a manner reminiscent of a tenor saxophonist flawlessly pecking out a staccato lead line. His voice nestles against Tounkara's guitar, which complements Sissoko's vocals while angling off on a path of its own. Choristers Kady Sulla and Mariam Tounkara add to the polyrhythmic complexity by contributing simple counterharmonies, effectively replacing the horn section that the Rail Band dropped recently. Fotigui Keita's skittering bass plus Maguet Diop's drum kit factor in what feel like contrary pulses, but their oblique additions are the final pieces that keep the song components from whirling apart in a shower of sparks.
It's a measure of how far this sophisticated music veers from our own pop conventions that it isn't until track seven, "Tunga," when Tounkara borrows from the American electric guitar vocabulary. A quick flurry of bent notes, a few lush chord strums, and a single series of one-string stutters are all that link his remarkable improvisations to those of his New World equivalents. On the rest of the album, he keeps to the Manding style that emulates rapid-fire runs on the kora harp, though his perfectly enunciated intonation might remind you of a jazz guitarist like George Benson. His gorgeous playing provides an easy entry point to a style of music that isn't always accessible to Western ears.
Unlike other West African genres that dip freely into American and Latin American pop, Malian pop keeps its traditional Manding roots at the forefront. But listen closely, and you'll hear through to the joy and vigor of one of the best and most enduring bands around.