by Opiyo Oloya

October 1996

The buzz on the African music scene is coming from West Africa right now. The output of new albums has never been greater and the quality never better. These are some of the latest from the land of the kora and balafon and the molo.

Kaira Ben, a band made of Malian musical elites and fronted by the gravelly voice of Senegalese singer Idrissa Magassa, has released a potent brew titled Singa (Stern's). This is a ruthless mercenary group (session musicians) whose sole objective was to bring back the good times from the golden years when Salif Keita and the Super Rail Band of Bamako ruled the West African airwaves. The sheer talents involved in the project guaranteed its success from day one. There is Zouman Diarra, Malian multi-instrumentalist, who sparkles on guitar and djembe. Then there is Keletigui Diabate whose unrivalled expertise on the balafon has made him the hitman in any serious Madinka music project. Other luminaries include Tidiane Kone (saxophone/trumpet), Moussa Diakite (guitar), Cheick Tidiane Seck (keyboards), Abdramane Fall (percussion) and Mama Keita (backing vocals). But the name worth mentioning all on its own is Makan Tounkara who plays the ngoni, a cousin of the 21-stringed kora. Tounkara is an impressive weaver of colourful melodies. With nimble fingers, he lights up the background enough, allowing the lead singer shine. And indeed, the good times do roll into view with tunes like Bamba, Singa and Poulo.

James Brown's funky music meets highlife music in Captain Yaba's debut album titled Tinanure (Fab Records). The young Ghanaian musician is a maestro of the two-stringed molo, an instrument made from skin covered gourd with a long girrafe-like neck. Captain Yaba who teamed with Francis Fuster the Sierra Leonian master percussionist, has produced a new sound that is both powerful, spiritual and highly danceable. From the opening tune to the last one, the molo sets the tone and the drums follow in flawless harmony. Moreover, the Captain's roughly hewed voice is captivating; it makes Tinanure easily the most innovative pop album to come from Ghana in almost a decade.

Oumou Sangare, the grand diva of Wassoulou groove is back with Worotan (World Circuit). But unlike her two previous albums, this album is stripped to the bare essentials, allowing Sangare's powerful voice to roam the landscape unhindered by too many gadgets. And indeed, she hits the high notes running, pleading here for love before darting away to scoff at the male dominated Malian society where a woman is married away for 10 kola nuts. Even as the beautifully curved voice climbs to the top of the hill, the accompanying instruments raise a storm in the background. Basidi Keita is hot on the djembe; Kasim Sidibe plays the kamalngoni. And American tenor Sax, Pee Wee Ellis, joins the fray on two tunes. As one listens to this album, one gets a sudden chill at the breath-taking beauty of the music. Sangare is without question the new Queen of African pop music since Miriam Makeba dominated the female voice in the 1960s.

Few acoustic guitarists have the power to dazzle and entertain like Sekou Bembeya Diabate a.k.a Diamond Fingers; he of the Bembeya Jazz National, the Guinean state band that set West Africa afire in the late 1970s. In Diamond Fingers (Semaphore), the fifty-two year old Diabate accompanied by two other guitarists is so brilliant and vibrant that he mesmerises the beholder much in the same manner that an animal is frozen in the bright headlamps of an approaching car. The only difference is that the animal dies, but the listener is forever washed with pleasant sensation. The tunes "Anfila", "Kolankoma" and "Mami Wata" leave you panting for more. This is an instant classic, a must have album, one you should kill to get your hands on.

Elsewhere on the continent, our spirits are lifted by music from the Nile valleys in Upper Egypt. There are many secrets here, but none more thrilling than the group called The Musicians of the Nile. It is not necessary to understand Arabic to enjoy their album Charcoal Gypsies (RealWorld). Indeed, the musical clan led by Metqal Qenawi Metqal raises a swirl of desert storm with their powerful chants, weaving flutes and rolling tabla drums. The music starts slowly until it reaches an intoxicating fever pitch. The songs themselves provoke the image of timeless space and beauty, where people live in perpetual ecstasy. This is as close to paradise as one gets in music land.

On more solid ground is Hukwe Zawose's Chibite (RealWorld) in which the Tanzanian musician plays the ilimba (thumb piano). Zawose considered a master of this instrument, works his thumbs and his voice into enchanting tunes. His voice is at once comforting, yet disturbing. In it your hear the interplay between sorrow and joy. happiness and sadness and throughout, he maintains the traditional flavour of story-telling in the music. In Nyagawuya, a young babysitter who is not well-treated abandons the family and the baby. The baby's father implores the babysitter to return, she refuses and is promptly murdered by the irrational man. He embalms the body and uses it to appease the baby whenever he cries. The man is finally found out and punished for his dark deed. Zawose is such a powerful singer he makes the ilimba sing along with him.

The previous edition of Afrodisc is available

Opiyo Oloya is the host of the radio program Karibuni on CIUT 89.5 FM Radio, Toronto. The show airs on Saturday 4:00 PM- 5:00 PM.

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