by Opiyo Oloya

Does the name Mama Sissoko ring a bell somewhere? Chances are, you have never heard of this mysterious guitarist from Mali. Despite the feminine sounding first name, the super-talented Mama Sissoko is actually a man who first cut his teeth with the famous Super Biton de Segou. He has also performed for many notable Malian stars, but only lately has come into his own with the release of Jarabi/Amours (Buda/Polygram - Canada).

cd cover Jarabi/Amours is, without a doubt, one of the finest releases from Mali in the last two years (consider yourself utterly deprived if you cannot get your hands on this album). Wielding his acoustic guitar with ease, Sissoko creates a hybrid traditional sound between Mali blues man Ali Farka Toure and Guinean fast-finger, Sekou Diabate aka "Diamond Fingers". His songs are composed with rare clarity, simplicity and sheer beauty. His roughly hewed voice is well complemented by a mellow, yet colorful guitar style ( which is dry, but not too dry as to sound like Ali Farka Toure's).

The essence of Sissoko's arrangement is delicately balanced such that it conveys the spontaneity that other artists merely dream of achieving in their music. On the tracks "Homage A Fode", "Silaami Jama" and "Wori", Sissoko's voice is masculine, yet it radiates a warm charm that permeates the entire music.

On the track "Duga", Sissoko reveals his power as a composer, arranger and guitarist extraordinaire. Here, Sissoko sings and plays the guitar as if his life depends on it and, by so doing, proves that he is a worthy griot who can sit at the table alongside Mandingue greats like Salif Keita, Ali Farka Toure and Mory Kante.

The Latino Gold Rush

Meanwhile, there is a rush among African artists to go Latino with their releases. The most famous of the bunch is none other than the dean of Makossa, Paris-based saxophonist Manu Dibango.

Listening to Manu Dibango's latest project CubAfrica (Coeur de Lion/Celluloid - Canada - in which the veteran Cameroonian saxophonist teams up with one of Cuba's hottest son band, Cuarteto Patria, led by guitarist Eliades Ochoa, one wonders why it took Dibango so long to rediscover his Cuban connections. After all, his early foray into Latin music dates back to the 1960s when he was a young man kicking around in Belgium Congo and Cuban music was de rigueur in Kinshasha night clubs.

Whatever the reason, CubAfrica is arguably Dibango's best collaboration in a very long time. Though the Ochoa team describes itself as a rural band, its sound is decidedly urban and, in no time at all, it whips up one dance number after another. Dibango, meanwhile, is back in his element here; he cuts, revs and swerves on his saxophone and, once in a while, throws cool encouragement in his super deep bass voice. Every note, every nuance emanates with a vibrant sense of fun, a lot of fun. And the guys seem to truly enjoy themselves.

The result is an authentic and very passionate Cuban son that spills out with the freshness of a bubbly Cameroonian Makossa sound. Listen to Dibango's vintage saxophone take full flight on the track "Rumba Makossa" while Ochoa leads the pack on one of the best rumba ever.

Manu Dibango may have found Cuarteto Patria, but this plucky Cuban band has given him plenty of energy and stamina to shake off the smoky cobweb of age. In fact, on CubAfrica, it has given him life itself.

The other lesser known artist, but equally talented African musician who has scored big with the Latino sound is Congolese-born Ricardo Lemvo. On his internationally released album titled Mambo Yo Yo (Putumayo - ), Lemvo leads his Los Angeles based Cuban flavored band, Makina Loca, on an exuberant musical trip that serves Cuban son montuno and African rumba without pause.

But rather than pour forth straight guitar-licking soukous, Lemvo marinated his African musical experiences with big Cuban club sound. The result is an outstanding album that begs to be listened and danced to simultaneously. The well seasoned cast of Latin artists are tight on all the tracks, shaking loose when it serves their purpose and, when necessary, holding back just long enough to allow a few minutes respite before plunging back into the music.

Lemvo is extraordinary singing both in his native Lingala and Spanish. Listen to his delicious interpretation of the classic Congolese killer tune "Afrika Mokili Mobimba", on which he breathes life and fire.

And just to show that he capable of indulging in a bit of soukous frenzy himself, Lemvo employs the skills of Congolese guitar player Bopol Mansiamina on the track Manuela, thereby adding hot pepper to the already hot ouvres.

cd cover The other exciting album with Latino flavors is Galo Negra (Putumayo), an album which is remarkable in many ways. For one thing, it achieves the Latin rumba style with an entire cast of African musicians. For another, it unites four OK Jazz alumni; singer Sam Mangwana, guitar ace Papa Noel Nedule Monswet and back-up vocals Akumu Nana and Mbambo Baniel Vicky (these last two featured prominently with Franco Luambo Makiadi on OK Jazz album "Les On Dit" in the mid-1980s).

On this album, veteran Mangwana excels by blending vocal styles from Angola, Congo, Mozambique and Guinea Bissau as he sings in Lingala and Portuguese. Instead of working the familiar soukous rhythm which he helped pioneer through the 1970s, Mangwana leads his team through brilliant Cuba son, Mozambique Marabenta, Cabo Verdean morna and Angolan merengue. Meanwhile, the entire album vibrates with the unmistakable sweet accordion sound of Madagascar artist Regis Gizavo, one of the most versatile accordion player in the world today.

In any event, the result is breathtaking music that is beautiful to listen and dance to. The tracks "Elima" and "Ya Mbemba" are sharp kikongo mutuashi style featuring the crack conga drum of Roger Raspail and the wailing guitar of Papa Noel.

Meanwhile the tracks "Maloba" , "Nakupenda", "Caro Mabanzo" and "Ghetto" are delivered with typical Mangwana aplomb and zest. The back-up vocals never miss a beat, as the music swings and rocks. Listen carefully to the track "Balobi" and you will discover that Mangwana and Papa Noel have brilliantly insinuated lyrics from their days in OK jazz.

With Galo Negra, Mangwana has forever cemented his reputation as one of the best African singer/song-writer of all time.

Drum Talk from New York

Finally, the thing about drumming is that either you can drum or you cannot drum. No doubt, Ghanaian born Kwaku Kwaaye Obeng (who now lives in New York) is an artist who can drum. His debut album Awakening (Yikes Records - is a refreshing exploration of Ghanaian traditional drumming with an urban attitude. On the album, Obeng avoids the pitfall of human voice and relies solely on the dexterity of his arms over an array of Akan drums including the Apentema, Brekete, Donno, oprenten and the large atumpan drums (these are explained in the liner note) to raise a storm.

Unleashing a kaleidoscopic attack on the drums, Obeng communicates and evokes many colors and meanings. The title track "Awakening" breaks out into a fast head-nodding rhythm which is carried throughout the entire album. Meanwhile on "Oprenten No. 4," butterflies and bees flitter away on a hot summer day, chasing each other through the lush tropical greenery (this is my own imagination running wild). The rhythm sounds so elemental, yet it is layered with earthly ambiance that throbs through your body.

Check out the call-and response style on the track "Okyere," as the big drum tries to scare away the little drum, but the little drum, not easily scared away, shoots right back. The interplay, while it lasts, is dazzling until the two drums decide to make peace.

However, what should have been a very polished production of a master drummer is reduced almost to an amateurish jam as the modern drum kit butts in on several tracks. For instance, on tracks two and three, Obeng's mesmerising power on the African skin-drums is ruined by utterly gratuitous addition of the kit.

That said, not everything sticks to the floor like mud. There is enough energy generated from the Ghanaian drums to override the bad vibes and bumpy spots on the album.

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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