AFÖ, Mamady Keïta’s fifth recording, triumphantly celebrates the two sides of one of the world’s most renowned djembefolas. Released in conjunction with the celebration of the tenth anniversary of Mamady’s Belgium-based group, Sewa Kan, AFÖ combines the best of the traditional and ballet styles to form an extraordinary musical tapestry.
Following the success of his Guinée-based recordings, Mögöbalu and Hamana, Mamady returns to recording with his Belgium-based group, Sewa Kan. However, this is a different—and even stronger—group of musicians than those that appeared on Mamady’s first two Sewa Kan recordings, Wassolon and Nankama. Besides Mamady himself, only Didier Labarre remains from the original lineup. On AFÖ, Didier plays dununba on all but one piece, Baö (on which he plays krin). Cécé Koly and Elion Gilbert play sangban and kenkeni, respectably, on each rhythm. The three do a tremendous job of setting the underlying melody line for each rhythm. Joining Mamady on djembe (as well as adding additional texture with the bass djembe) are Sény Touré, Sidiki Camara, and Souleymane Camara. Unlike Mamady’s previous recordings with Sewa Kan, in which he played virtually all of the solos, each djembefola has the opportunity to solo, adding variety to the music as each expresses his own individual voice. However, once again it is the clarity, precision and grace of Mamady’s playing that constantly raises the level of the music to new heights.
AFÖ is in some ways more traditional than the previous Sewa Kan recordings, and in other ways it is more ballet-oriented. It is more traditional in the sense that, unlike Wassolon and Nankama, in which Didier played both sangban and dunumba on most tracks, AFÖ features three separate dunun players on all but one of the nine tracks, whether the dununs are played horizontally each with a bell, or played vertically with two sticks. On the other hand, AFÖ is a groundbreaking recording of the ballet style. Described as a "pyramid of rhythms" AFÖ is essentially one 75-minute-long piece, melding traditional rhythms (and one of Mamady’s own compositions) with long, extraordinarily intricate and impeccably executed ballet-style "breaks." Each track moves effortlessly into the next, creating an integrated whole.
As Mamady states in the liner notes "each rhythm preserves its strict reference to its traditional form" (the exception being "Sewa" a modern composition of Mamady’s). In fact virtually all of the rhythms that form the structure of the pyramid are ones that Mamady teaches in his classes and workshops of traditional rhythms, and the recorded versions match what he teaches.
The album opens with a short break into Moribayassa, a very old traditional Malinke rhythm that Mamady often teaches in his classes. There are several short breaks within the song. The track ends with an intricate break almost two and half minutes long full of dynamic changes and musical surprises (including a small piece of the break from one the Liberte rhythms created in celebration of the independence of Guinée).
This long break drops neatly into Djaa, a dance of seduction (this version is from the Kankan/Kourousa region). This is one of my personal favorite rhythms with its wonderful conversation between the sangban and dunumba parts.
Didier gently transitions into the next piece, Djagbewara, on the dununba. The piece slowly builds, with Cécé and Elion next joining in on the sangban and kenkeni (which mark the time and first off-beat, respectively), followed by the djembe accompaniments. The song is full of musical tension, the various parts pulling and pushing on and off the time, creating a sound rich and deep. Mamady’s solos complement and extend upon this theme, rather than overwhelm it.
Ah Zaouli! A mask dance originally from the Gouro people of Ivory Coast, Zaouli features many different long and complicated breaks (a version can be heard on Adama Drame’s first recording). The version on AFÖ features three breaks, as well as two different basic rhythms. The 3 dunduns are each played vertically with two sticks. The first time I heard I heard Zaouli played this way, rather than with one person playing dununba and sangban, I could not believe the fullness of the sound. Mamady’s playing on this piece is some of the most tasteful on any of his recordings. But it is the precision of the breaks that is most astounding; the musicians effortlessly play as one.
Next is Sewa, a rhythm Mamady composed in 1979 in which the three dunun players again play vertically with two sticks. This complex rhythm shows off Mamady’s talent as a composer, and Sewa Kan’s dexterity in playing it. In the chant Mamady asks each musician to "play the djembe for me" or "play the dunun for me." Each musician answers with a short improvised passage.
Toro opens with a slow groove on the bells. Then Didier comes in on the dununba and plays one phrase, after which the rest of the musicians jump in, continuing the loping pace. Following the first chant, Mamady calls a break and the speed doubles. Following another break, the tempo cuts back in half, and the chant is repeated. Another break and the tempo jumps up again. An éschauffment ends this satisfying arrangement, followed by a final break.
The djembe and dundun then give way to the unique sound of the krin (a wooden slit drum played with two small sticks), for Baö, a rhythm of Toma origin. The beginning combines Cécé’s voice (speaking in Guerse) with the sound of the krin, played by Mamady, Souleymane, and Didier. Later they are joined by Sény on djembe, Sidiki on bass djembe, Cécé on sangban and Elion on kenkeni. Funky, funky, funky.
Next is Wassalonka, another traditional Malinke rhythm. This is yet another of my personal favorites, with its lilting underlying rhythm and melody lines laid down by the dundun, and intricate lead phrases.
Kassa opens with handclapping and a call and response chant in which Mamady names a series of towns of villages in Guinée and Mali, beginning with Saraya (where this version originated) and ending with his hometown of Balandougou. Then the dunduns come in, followed by the djembes. This is the third example of the Kassa family of rhythms that Mamady has recorded, in addition to the two that open his first recording, Wassolon.
A short break brings the pyramid to its concluding track, Djamana, which is described in the liner notes as "a piece in the ngoran rhythm that is used by the Senoufo." Each djembefola has the opportunity to solo on this final piece. Mamady plays the first, followed by a song which declares "The rhythm bursts forth, let all listen and speak it!" Mamady’s final solo ends with a last, short ensemble break, crowning the pyramid.
AFÖ stands as a testament to Mamady Keïta's musical genius, initially formed growing up in the traditional village setting, and refined and developed through his years of work with the ballet, as well as his more recent experiences teaching and performing in Europe, Japan, and the U.S. It should not be missed.
One final note of anticipation: Mamady’s next CD has been recorded in Balandougou. This important recording, devoted to the festivities and meetings of the village of Mamady’s birth, will be released soon.
This CD (as well as Mamady Keita's other recordings), can be purchased on the internet at http://uk.netbeat.com/artists/mamady_keita_191.html . They are also available from Tam Tam Mandingue professor Michael Moonbear firstname.lastname@example.org and other fine vendors on these lists.