Samba Toure - Monolith Cocktail review

 

Samba Touré   ‘Gandadiko’   (Glitterbeat)   2nd February 2015.

Sidelined, pushed and removed from the ever-changing newsfeed, the slide from a stable though often problematic state into another volatile region on the verge of collapse, Mali has suffered a coup, civil war, insurgency, and now in its northern regions, a draught. The riverbeds run dry and deep, adding yet more strain to the already over-stretched economic and security woes.

A chain of events which started with the Tuareg people’s fight for their own autonomous region (the independent state of Azawad) in the north of Mali during 2012, spiralled as the country’s government failed to quell the ‘rebellion’ and was usurped in a coup d’état, replaced by the less than sympathetic military officer Amadou Sanogo. Despite this, the conflict spread further as the unsavoury Islamist groups, Ansar Dine and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, took advantage and joined in the expanding insurgency. Gaining a foothold, moving ever dangerously closer to the capital of Bamako and already taken the iconic, legendary and revered atavistic city of Timbuktu, the ill-gotten miscreant bedfellows turned on their Tuareg brethren – who had by now declared their goal of an independent state – for failing to implement Sharia law in their newly conquered territory. Losing ground and control the government was forced to bring in former colonial rulers, France (with some tactical support from the UK) who eventually forced the Islamists fractions back north. Still in a state of fluxes, even though French troops have agreed to withdraw and some stability has returned to the capitol, a peace treaty has still yet to be signed and guerrilla style attacks continue. But as one troublesome region ebbs – usually down to a turbulent stalemate or uneasy suspension in violence – from our consciousness, another soon replaces it, and in 2014 we were never left waiting for another catastrophe: from the ongoing civil war in Syria, expanding to the full on Fascistic Caliphate that has drawn in the entire Middle East and added more weight to the Kurds long-standing fight against Turkey and others to control their own independent state (currently baring the brunt and doing most of the fighting against the ISIS hordes), to the troubles closer to home in Europe, as Russia manipulates and stirs up trouble in the Ukraine. And not only has Mali suffered in recent years, but also the giant and powerhouse of the African continent, Nigeria, has seen an escalation in violence and kidnappings from the relative nuisance turn national security priority, Boko Harem – currently threatening to overrun the entire country ahead of elections in 2015.

In the eye of this and impending storms, the adroit Malian guitarist maestro Samba Touré transduces the plight of his country into nimbly picked away at, and subtle poetic, desert Songhai-blues’ style peregrinations. His last masterful performance, the Albala album from 2013, was captivatingly sad; lamenting with both anger and stirring protestation the ongoing struggles that were tearing Mali apart, including the taking of his very own village of Diré by the rebels (who once invaded implemented Sharia law) and the ramifications of the 2012 coup in his   adopted home of Bamako. The title itself translates as risk or danger, and despite its diaphanous melodies and delicate fretwork, Touré’s plaintive songbook could be read as a eulogy of despair – though a little unjustly, as far from moping around in a swell of remorseful pity, the album was a triumphant mix of gritty, raw and dulcet majesty; making our very own albums of 2013 list.

Far from resolution, the problems of Mali continue, especially for the regions indigenous cultures. Numerous musicians, fearful of the reprisals meted out by both sides, but to the greater extent the Islamist groups, who under Sharia interpretations it seems have condemned most music and art, have left to go overseas or find sanctuary in neighbouring, more tolerant countries: still untainted by the spread of Islam’s most ill-served ‘prophets of rage’ and dangerous death cult insurgents. Even many of the Tuareg Bedouin’s own troubadours have fled or been forced into exile – groups such as Tamikrest and Tinariwen – as the regime outlaws anything remotely electrified and western sounding or straying from the commandments of the good book. Touré returns with his second LP for Glitterbeat Records, Gandadiko, to address these reverberations as well as the most recent problems of a barren landscape made even worse by recent droughts, leading to massive inflation of prices – healthier cattle from just two years back reached $600, now enervated and boney they’re lucky to reach a tenth of that. Yet as Touré’s record producer Phillippe Sanmiguel states in the press release, “this is a more hopeful record”, with “a variety of rhythms and moods, both more danceable and up-tempo”. Touré in his optimistic renew has taken to venturing further a field for ideas and melodies, listening to an eclectic mix of psychedelia, Bo Diddley (not so surprising) and (this one is a surprise) Serge Gainsbourg. But before these influences kick in, “Land of drought” or if you prefer, “burning land”, Gandadiko’s eponymous opening evokes the dusty, parched plains, sweeping in on ominous winds and a hypnotic, sinking and rising bed of esoteric blues. Spindly refined and traipsing the landscape with a mystical accompaniment of sokua, monochord and guitar, Touré lays it bare and simple with the following lyrics:

 

‘Our tears are not enough to make the land fertile.

Animals die one after the other, the ground becomes dry,

There is nothing more to eat for the herds,

Cows are only skin and bones.’

 

The pace picks up on the following meandering, handclap accompanied, delta blues number, ‘Wo Yende Alakar’, which languorously brushes with the borderless, well-traveled sound of fellow label mates, Dirtmusic: all mysterious, exotic and imbued with the spirit of the landscapes it wonders through. Sparse but highly descriptive Touré and his band of erudite players, underplay and purposely held quivering or swaying in a disciplined but loose form, continue to fluctuate between the humbling rhythm of poised, thoughtful brooding, as witnessed on the somber, contemplative and beautifully soothing ‘Chiri Hari’, and the more flowing, up-tempo sophistication found on the hypnotic, tapping and twanged ‘I Kana Korto’.

Offering a curveball of sorts, the New Orleans style swamp delta rock of ‘Su Wililié (The Living Dead)’, rolls in with what could be a faux Bellamy Brothers lick before hitting the right spot with a repeating backbeat of clicking percussion, jangled rhythm guitar and sustained electric solo. Positively upbeat and swaying jovially, this tale of Touré’s old, waylaid by the ravages of drink, friend carries a augur of what can happen when you embark upon the crossroads and decide on taking the wrong turn.

‘When I see my childhood friend who looks twice my age,

And who just can’t remember me.

When I see these living dead,

I say thanks that the alcohol has never crossed my path.’

 

There’s even an undertone of rebuttal against the burgeoning glorification in Mali by the homegrown Hip Hop phenomenon, which celebrates the excesses of both drink and drugs but negates to mention responsibility. An added fatalistic twist haunts this tale, as on the same day that Touré recorded this song and the free-roaming, flame enticing ‘Gafouré’, his friend of the title, Su Wililié, died: Already nervous to play the Djinn traditional demon spirit song, Gafouré in the studio (a standard only ever strummed live in the right setting and circumstances due to its folkloric reputation as an incendiary, dangerous force of evil, not to be taken lightly), Touré later blamed the passing of Wililié on the decision to record it. Spooky coincidences aside, both tracks prove far from demonic or downbeat.

The album finishes on the sweetly harmonic duet, “pan-ethnic understanding”, ‘Woyé Kate’, which features the softer counterpoint vocals of Ahmed Ag Kaedi (of the mirage quivering, sand dune blues rocking Tuareg group, Amanar). A call for reconstruction amidst the chaos, the two consummate troubadours echo the unified mantra of repairing the tenuous, but real, bonds that once kept an uneasy but stable region relatively calm. Almost a soulful lullaby come languid, camel hoofed trot, Touré and his dulcet toned companion Kaedi, soothingly fade out on a message of love, peace and forgiveness. A message and set of themes that permeate throughout this optimistic songbook, which not only returns to Mali’s soul but also cleverly revises the blues tradition that left its shores in the first place to the new world.

As is customary, Touré’s subtle, nuanced style of playing needs total immersion to be absorbed and enjoyed. This is the blues after all, served by a more traditional backing of indigenous variants of West African instrumentation that never quite breaks into a swagger or funk. Still, it does have more movement and rhythm than its predecessor and is perhaps a little more jaunty and self-assured.

(Dominic Valvona)

Catch our review of Samba Touré’s 2013 album, Albala.

Samba Toure

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