Anansy Cissé ‘Anoura’
(Riverboat Records) 26th February 2021

We can’t blame the unfortunate Malian artist/guitarist Anansy Cissé for taking so long to release a new album. Originally started back in early 2017 but now only seeing the light-of-day (hence “The Light” translated title…to a point) four years later, Anoura was conceived in the turmoil of insurgencies, ethnic violence, droughts, the loss of a dear friend and collaborator on this record, and the on-going stand-off between the National Movement For The Liberation Of Azawad and Mali’s central government in Bamako in the fight for an autonomous state in the country’s northern, Saharan bordering regions. And that’s all before you throw in Covid-19 to the mix of sufferings and setbacks.

The catalyst however for Cissé hiatus from and pause in finishing this album was (ironically) an invitation in 2018 to a “peace and reconciliation” festival in his hometown of Diré. Situated on the left bank of the River Niger, and part of the greater Timbuktu region, Diré is a culturally significant centre but falls within the very areas fighting for independence. Originally this was a Tuareg-led struggle (one of many over the last century) that gained sizable traction in 2012, leading to whole swathes of Northern Mali and important towns such as Timbuktu itself being taken by the NMLA and other groups. To further muddy the waters, hardline Islamist groups, both emboldened by events in Syria and as a consequence in part of the volatile breakdown in Libya, hijacked the fight: working in part, in the beginning, with those rebels fighting against the Malian government before turning on them. Pushed on by Islamist militants, such as the Ansar Dine, this insurgency grew momentum, making its way south towards the capital of Mali before being met with force by the government and invited French troops.  The Islamist insurgents were stalled, yet took to planning less audacious frontal attacks in favour of guerilla terrorism tactics. As it stands the toxicity and violence has been taken across the border into neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso; those northern regions of Mali still tenuously controlled by the NMLA. A recent ethnic war in the central belt of Mali has concentrated a combined alliance of French and Malian forces, though of writing this piece that conflict has been brought to an end with a truce. The government itself was ousted in a military coup only last year, and in the last month, the usurpers have themselves stepped down.

It’s with all this upheaval, threats of violence and geo-political tumult that Cissé found himself in 2018 being dragged from the vehicle his band were travelling to that Diré festival in by an armed gang, who meted out beatings, destroyed their musical instruments and held them captive. Traumatic you’ll agree, this led to Cissé questioning the madness unfolding in his homeland. With no guarantees of safety and the freedoms of performing, travelling through Mali stifled if not deadly, the celebrated guitarist withdrew to his humble home studio to make sense of it all. Although already capturing the willowy, frayed rich sounds of the late souk master Zoumana Tereta, who contributed his accentuate and reedy single-string fiddle tones to the album tracks ‘Balkissa’ and ‘Talka’ just before his death in 2017, Cissé turned away from his own album sessions to concentrate on recording other artists, mostly an emerging pool of rap artists. Though making ends meet and at least keeping a hand in the business, it wasn’t enough. And so prompted by the birth of his first child, he found his mojo and resumed work on what would eventually be the light-bringing Anoura.

Despite the time period and turn of events, this album is concerned less with politicizing and more with the “here and now”. Yet there’s a couplet of songs, the opening desert blues sighing, trickling and falling notes and lines ‘Tiawo’ and brilliant, nurturing ‘Talka’ that “stress” the need for education and opportunity for the young in a desperate Mali reeling from constant upheaval.  More personal reflections, dedicated to Cissé wife Bally (who adds a most diaphanous harmony and voice, alongside Oumar ‘Choubs’ Diara, on many of the album’s tracks) and their daughter Kady, sit congruously with sagacious reminisces of better times and a tribute to the family’s lineage of “murabouts” (religious teachers).

Brought up in the predominantly musically rich Muslim realms of Mali, Cissé roots and traditions merge seamlessly with atmospheric currents, echoing flange and a touch of desert mysticism. Songhai (the language Cissé speaks and sings in throughout this album) blues and traces of the legendary Malian guitarist Lobi Traoué breath and tremble alongside front porch dirt music, boogie swamp rock and even the psychedelic on a magical album of scene setting mirages and homages.

Encircled by sirocco winds, drawing contoured phrases and riffs in the sand, Cissé manages to traverse a sort of Tuareg Canned Heat meets Ash Ra Tempel on the spoon-percussive slapping, fanned electric ‘Mina’, and takes on a reggae gait dub feel of Ben Zabo on ‘Foussa Foussa’. Harmonically beautiful, the musicianship first class, gentle, forgiving, hanging in the air and hypnotising, Anoura is a wonderful and masterful album. The long wait has been well worth it. 

Hi, my name is Dominic Valvona and I’m the Founder of the music/culture blog For the last ten years I’ve featured and supported music, musicians and labels we love across genres from around the world that we think you’ll want to know about. No content on the site is paid for or sponsored and we only feature artists we have genuine respect for /love. If you enjoy our reviews (and we often write long, thoughtful ones), found a new artist you admire or if we have featured you or artists you represent and would like to buy us a coffee at to say cheers for spreading the word, then that would be much appreciated.

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