ISSA BAGAYOGO / “Madomba”
The Republic of Mali is the largest country in West Africa (about the size of Texas, according to Wikipedia). It’s also home to some of Africa’s most famous musicians. Anyone with more than a passing interest in African music will recognize names like Ali Farka Touré, Boubacar Traoré, Salif Keita, Oumou Sangare and Kalamu’s personal favorite, Rokia Traoré. My favorite musician from Mali is Issa Bagayogo.
In contrast to the renowned vocal sweetness of Malians like Salif Keita and Rokie Traoré, Issa Bagayogo sings in a gravely, gruff tone. That’s when he sings at all. Instead of singing, he tends to chant a lot, and sometimes he just talks. And when he talks, it’s with that same scratchy tone and at a pace that suggests I might not understand everything he’s saying even if I did speak the language. All of that gives the occasional choruses of Issa’s ethereal-voiced backup singers an extra poignancy.
I think what I like most about Issa’s music are all the contrasts. There’s Issa’s voice vs. the backup singers, as I mentioned. But there’s also a sharp contrast between the traditional and the contemporary. In addition to singing, Issa plays a traditional Malian instrument named the n’goni, a stringed instrument that looks like a calabash with a neck attached and sounds like a lower-pitched banjo. But on most of Issa’s songs, he plays his n’goni over rhythm tracks that are at least partially electronic.
Of course, there’s always a danger in blending electronic music with traditional music, the danger being that the blend will end up sounding like exotically-flavored electronica — something that might sound pleasant in the elevator of a trendy hotel — rather than actual music. That’s almost never the case with Issa’s music. Issa records in Mali; the electronic elements are worked in from the beginning. Meaning, this isn’t a situation where Issa records his singing and playing and then it’s shipped to some off-site producer. Issa Bagayogo – or ‘Techno Issa’ as one press release calls him – works with long-time producer and multi-instrumentalist Yves Wernert to create organic/electronic, traditional/contemporary, Western/Malian music. Take a listen. It sounds lot better than my badly-worded description would lead you to believe.
All of the tracks in the jukebox are from Issa’s 1999 debut album Sya, which means ‘Race’ (in the sense of ethnicity). Issa has two other albums, 2001’s Timbuktu and 2004’s Tassoumakan. Sya is the most traditional-sounding (other than the title track). Timbuktu is the probably the catchiest, with a lot of up and midtempo songs. And Issa's latest release, Tassoumakan, is the most electronic oriented, but also the one with the strongest songwriting. All in all though, if you like the music from Sya, you’ll probably like the other two albums as well.
—Mtume ya Salaam
Some tasty music
I know exactly where I was and what I was doing when I first heard Issa Bagayogo. I was eating at Benechin’s, a Gambian/Camaroonian restaurant on Royal Street in the lower French Quarter of New Orleans. It was a Thursday evening—the usual time when, each week, Dr. Jerry Ward and I renew our friendship vows. Even though we were deep in conversation about whatever we were conversating about, Issa tugged at my ear with sufficient insistence that I had to find out “who is that?”
I wrote the name down, not trusting my pre-Alzheimer’s memory bank. When I got home, I ordered the CD. A week or so later when I received the music, I was sufficiently impressed that I called Mtume and told him to check it out. Although I eventually acquired all three of Issa’s CDs, Mtume dove deeper into the music than I did. I think I intended to write about Issa, but truthfully I forgot. Mtume remembered. He’s younger and better equipped. Thanks, son, for reminding me.
Whenever I heard Issa, I taste steamed talipia, sautéed spinach, fried plaintain and coco rice with a half & half glass of ginger beer and wonjo (a red zinger-like herbal tea). I do. And it’s always satisfying.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
This entry was posted on Sunday, July 8th, 2007 at 12:06 am and is filed under Contemporary. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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