Coming from a noble family in the ancient town of Gao, at the heart of Mali’s Songhaï empire, Sidi Touré had to fight society’s expectations and family disapproval to sing and perform. Overcoming this, he toured with Gao’s regional Songhaï Stars orchestra, and has won awards for songs written – unusually – in his own language (Songhaï) rather than the more usual Bambara vernacular. Something of a trailblazer and a rebel, then? Clearly. And once you start listening to his music it is obvious that his is a talent that needs to be aired.
Originally intending the album to serve more as a documentary based around the traditions of Gao, incorporating street recordings and interviews, producer Covalesky rapidly changed track once the recordings – carried out simply and after minimal rehearsal at Touré’s sister’s house – actually began. As he says “In the face of such beauty and power delivered so simply (…) there was nothing to add. Everything was there”.
Each track featured is conceived and executed as a duet, featuring Touré and one other friend/collaborator, and much of the beauty and power is found in the the interplay – seemingly effortless and instinctual, between musicians, instruments, voices. This is wonderfully captured on ‘Bera Nay Wassa’ (translated as ‘Honour goes straight to his heart’): Touré’s song of appreciation to the musicians that work with him. The warmth and affection in the vocal – calm and grave – contrasts with yet still complements the frenetic energy of the strings. From time to time, almost as an aside, Touré gently cries out a name, the gratitude clear in his voice.
This warmth is one of the key notes of the whole album. Whether singing of the exhaustion of working women (‘Wayey Zarrabo’) or rallying Malian youth to return home to their country’s aid (‘Artiatanat’) it is a quality that shines through. It is also notable, and remarkable, just how unshowy the music is, despite the clear virtuosity that is on display. ‘Bon Koum’ – although a song about regret – sounds calm and calming, with a sense of power held back. Also remarkably underplayed is ‘Haallah’, all ambulatory pacing, the lesser of the two string ‘lines’ keeping time, a constant, anchoring and reassuring presence.
When these musicians do let fly then, it is all the more impressive. The wild patterns spun, weaved, repeated and developed on ‘Djarii Ber’ (one of two tracks, along with ‘Taray Kongo’ with a distinctly Arabic feel), ‘Bera Nay Wassa’ (frantic, nimble, furious) and ‘Taray Kongo’ offer a wonderful counterpoint to the constancy and steadiness of the vocal. At times, as on ‘Sinji’, the strings are plucked and pulled with such force that the audible twang almost sounds painful. All this, on nearly every track, is simply the product of one or two voices, and one or two stringed instruments. The addition of a dull percussive thud on ‘Haallah’ and ‘Bera Nay Wasso’ is the exception rather than the rule.
This latter is one of the best tracks here, the busy energy of its repeating strings combining and contrasting with the vocal, building and accumulating to almost incantatory effect by its end. Also marvellous are ‘Sinji’, its strong melody reinforced by the double vocal, its shimmering brilliance almost casual, effortless; and ‘Wayey Zarrabo’, endowed with a distinct and melancholy beauty.
By the album’s end, on extended closing track ‘Artiatanat’, you begin to feel like the voice is a kind old friend, its benevolence somehow both trustworthy and reassuring. Even without an understanding of the words that it is singing, it somehow seems certain that they are imbued with wisdom and truth.