World in Stereo: Sidi Touré’s Sahel Folk

Each week, World in Stereo examines classic and modern world music while striving for a greater appreciation of other cultures.

Sidi Touré: Sahel Folk (Thrill Jockey, 1/25/11)

Sidi Touré: “Bon Koum”

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It has been 13 years since Malian folk artist Sidi Touré released a solo album. Touré’s 1998 debut, Hoga, is a bluesy, foot-stomping, electric-overdrive kind of record. At the time, Touré and many of his Malian contemporaries were on the cutting edge of the evolving Afro-pop sound, just before its revival hit the West by the turn of the century. Now at 51, Touré’s sound has definitely changed, but it’s as powerful and provocative as ever.

Sahel Folk, the West African musician’s debut on Thrill Jockey, is informed by the people and places most important to him, making for a record that comes off naturally introspective. Direct from the stunning red-dirt roads of Bamako, Mali, Touré and his unmatched guitar playing have made an album that’s nothing short of inspirational.

Performing a refined style called “Songhai blues,” Touré plays loose driving notes — semi-picked, semi-strummed — in an ethnic style where the pentatonic scale use will remind listeners of American blues. Fashioned and mastered by the late Ali Farka Touré (no relation), who single-handedly introduced the highly distinctive style to the world, Sahel Folk is yet another strand to Mali’s musical offspring.

In its repetitious nature, Sahel Folk is meditative. From the first note in “Bon Koum,” there’s an immediate sense of belonging, as if the gently plucked notes are the only things that would make sense in the moment. Met by Touré’s vocals in the Songhai language, the song has a mysterious simplicity, a kind of minimalist brilliance that only a few musicians can pull off. Touré does it well, crafting simple songs with moments of innate poignancy that are delivered with implicit confidence.

Recorded in a live “field recording” style at Touré’s sister’s house, the songs on the album simply let the players and instruments speak for themselves. In other words, Sahel Folk is basically a home-recorded album with every track featuring a different friend. Though the musicians only allowed themselves two takes to retain the spontaneity of the recording (after one day of arranging), the casual sessions are reflected in the final product.

From the soulful vocals of Jiba Touré in “Adema,” to the 10-minute track “Taray Kongo” that features Jambala Maiga on vocals and kuntigui (the mono-chord guitar known as the cosma in Niger), Sahel Folk is filled with perfect guest performances that keep things interesting. Though the fret-less kuntigui makes switching notes seamless, Maiga creates rapid melodic reverberations that give great weight to Touré’s sharp guitar flourishes.

As much as Sahel Folk is rooted in Touré’s friends, it is very much informed by the Sahel, the stretch of land that lies between the Sahara desert and the Sudanian savannas. A strip of land that covers Senegal to the West and Ethiopia to the East, the climate is dry in some areas, lush green in other areas, but always vast and encompassing.  It is also the site of the the Songhai empire, or present-day Gao, Mali, the ancient city in which Touré was born.

Lyrically, Touré sings simple proverbs, ancient Songhai folklore tweaked for modern audiences. Though some audiences won’t be able to understand the words, they will feel the emotional resonance from not only the beautiful intonations of the language but also the tones of the instruments.  Earnest in delivery and uplifting in approach and ascent, Sahel Folk masterfully reintroduces Sidi Touré to the global music scene.

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