Festival in the Desert
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Various Artists
Festival in the Desert
World Village 2003 (www.worldvillagemusic.com)

cd cover The question of what holds a recording together looms larger in the evaluation of a compilation than it does in that of an album by a single artist, perhaps because we rather expect artists to hold themselves together. That Festival in the Desert is not only a compilation, but a portrait of a music festival held in the remote Malian desert, merely pushes the question of theme back to the festival's organizers. From the liner notes and the evidence of these twenty clear and vibrant tracks, the answer is: the camel, whose rolling gait informs the rhythm of the takamba style that permeates the record. Most acts hail from Mali or its immediate environs, but such interlopers as France's Lo'Jo and England's Robert Plant manage to fit nicely into the festival's rhythmic theme; Native American band Blackfire, alas, does not.

Takamba Super Onze provides the first track: fast oud picking, stuttering percussion centered on a two-step beat, non-melodic vocals, a start-stop trance. Afel Bocoum then enters 'in media res' with one of the most striking tracks, the swirling intensity of his repetitive electric guitar riffs accentuating his lively, melodic vocal and its high accompaniment. How can people perform such music without falling over? One of the most unusual tracks comes from Tartit, a gently rolling takamba rhythm, like Takamba Super Onze's but simpler, in this case accompanied by carefully arranged trance choral vocals, occasional crowd sounds and ululations the sole clue that the recording is not in a tight loop. Robert Plant & Justin Adams' "Win My Train Fare Home" is surprisingly listenable; slow dramatic New Age-world-pop, Plant's vocal stretching toward blues, the whole sounding more like a Doors performance than anything else.

Mauritania's Sedoum Ehl Aïda lays a rocking desert beat under a lead vocal lithely sliding up and down scales, closely followed by a high accompanying vocal that takes te lead at times, electric guitar slapped and prodded into sensitive support. Another stand-out track is "Jah Kas Cool Boy," France's Lo'Jo contributing a violin whose well-tempered smoothness is at some odds with the rawness of the rest of the recording, as well as a striking female vocal duet featuring some hair-raising near-dissonances. The track gets even better as Django adds his own soaring rendition of the melody, to enthusiastic audience approval. On Tinariwen's "Aldachan Manin," a deliberate, plodding, nearly brutal beat underlies a simple electric guitar riff which presages a melody delivered in a stern baritone, high nasal backing vocals and frequent trilling ululations adding further drive and excitement. Adama Yalomba's "Politique" is another pleasant surprise, featuring a quick and sprightly beat and prominent kora uncommon to this recording, laying the foundation for Yalomba's smooth, high, expressive vocal.

A few final observations on this fine compilation. First, it is testimony to the successful assimilation of the electric guitar to Tuareg music. Second, it demonstrates why the Big Guns of this musical heritage enjoy their status: they earn it. Tracks by Afel Bocoum, Oumou Sangare, and Ali Farka Touré stand out in bright colors against what often (though not always) seem muted pastels by comparison. But there is nothing jarringly out of place here, save the track by Blackfire, which seems to have slipped in from another compilation. - Jim Foley

CD available from cdRoots

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