Djembe & Mande Music Page/Review Section


The past several months Michael Wall has assembled an impressive collection of kora/bala/ngoni CDs. He has been meaning to write a review of his favorites, but his busy work and travel schedule have made it impossible for him to do so. So he asked me to listen to his selections and write a review. As a general remark, let me just say that Michael has really outdone himself this time. This list contains 22 CDs of first-rate music. I hadn't heard any of it before, so every disc that I put on the CD player was a wonderful revelation. I was hard pressed to pick a few recordings that stood out above the rest; at any particular moment of this process, my favorite CD was one that I happened to be listening to at the time.

This list contains a heavy dose of jeli kora music, a selection of balafon music from a variety of musical traditions throughout Africa, a pair of ngoni recordings and a surprise pick. The kora music all comes from the jeli heartland of The Gambia, Senegal, Guinea and Mali, while Michael's selections of balafon music reflect the broader geographic distribution of this instrument within Africa. And some of these CDs, especially the four balafon recordings from Burkina Faso, have a substantial amount of fine drumming. Since there are so many kora recordings on this list, I was hard pressed to come up with distinctive things to say about each of them. Please don't interpret my lack of eloquence as a lack of enthusiasm. This is Volume 1; Volume 2 will follow in the near future. 

Sababougnouma (Burkina Faso) "The Balafons of Bobo Dioulasso"; Playasound PS 61172  "Balafons and African Drums" Playasound PS 65156
Sababougnouma is a dynamic balafon/djembe ensemble from Burkina Faso. Their basic lineup consists of two balafons, two baras (gourd drums), one djembe, and one dundun. They play Senoufo and Djola rhythms and their balafons are pentatonic as opposed to the heptatonic balafons of the jelis. Fans of Farafina should love these two CDs. 

Koko du Burkina Faso (Burkina Faso) "Balafons and African Drums Vol. 2"; Playasound; PS 65101
Another excellent Burkinabe balafon/djembe ensemble. Once again the comparison with Farafina, both in terms of style and quality, is unavoidable. "Sene ke law fo" is a powerful performance. The featured artist is Madou Kone, who is both a talented balafon player and a very good singer. 

Various Artists (Burkina Faso) "The Art of the Balafon"; Arion; ARN 604O3
A fourth CD of Burkinabe balafon/drum music. To be honest, I never expected these CDs to reach the standard set by Farafina, but all four of them do. This CD assembles music from 6 different ethnic groups (Siamou, Birifor, Gan, Dagara, and Lobi) from Burkina Faso and, thus, compliments the previous three CDs.

Malang Mané (Senegal) "Balanta Balo: Talking wood of Casamance"; Village Pulse; VPU 1006
This is a recording of the balafon music of the Balanta people of Senegal who use a large balafon called "kadji" that is played by two musicians who sit side by side. Malang Mané is the lead balafon player and he is accompanied by Oumar Sadio; together they get some interesting rhythmic patterns going. This is a high quality recording of a little-known West African balafon tradition. 

Various Artists "Balafons and African Drums"; PLAYASOUND; PS 65034
This CD assembles balafon and/or drum music from Algeria, Cameroon, Guinea, Togo, Senegal, Niger and Tanzania. These are quality field recordings and give the listener a broad sampling of musical styles from different parts of Africa. The title is a perhaps a bit misleading because only 7 of the 18 tracks contain balafons, yet it is still a worthwhile purchase. 

The Ivorys (Mali) "Bala"; World Record Series; WWCDOO6
Sidiqui Jajo (kora & vocals) Mori Jobarteh (balafon) and Kalifa Kamara (balafon) emigrated to the Ivory Coast, hence their name, "The Ivorys"; this is, however, a recording of classic Malian jeli balafon and kora music. The kora tends be recorded too low, but the balafons come through loud and clear. And as the title suggests, this is primarily a recording of balafon music. 

NéBa SoLo (Mali) "Kenedougou Foly"; Mélodie; 09281-2
Senoufo balafon music from Southern Mali. NéBa SoLo plays the balamba, a bass balafon, and is accompanied by Siaka Traoré on lead balafon, as well as two baras, a karignan and a titiara. Although both NéBa SoLo and The Ivorys are from Mali, the sound of the pentatonic Senoufo balafon played by the former is quite different from that of the jeli balafons played by the latter. The vocals on "Kenedougou Foly" display a marked Arabic influence, while the grooves are both funky and hypnotic. 

Dembo Konte and Kausu Kuyateh (The Gambia and Senegal) "Simbomba"; (The Gambia and Senegal) Rogue; FMSD 5011
Prior to joining forces with balafonist Mawdo Suso to record "Jaliology", Dembo Konte (The Gambia) and Kausu Kuyateh (Senegal) recorded this fine kora CD. The communication between these two musicians is remarkable as Dembo Konte weaves a rich melodic tapestry for Kausu Kuyateh's electrifying solo work. 

Sunjul Cissoko and Marhawa Kouyate (Senegal & Guinea) "Songs of the Griots II"; JVC; VICG-5227-2
Another eample of stellar jeli kora and singing. Sunjul Cissoko (Senegal) provides the outstanding kora play and also sings, and his wife, Marhawa Kouyate (Guinea)  excels as a vocalist. The highlight of this CD is "Kelefa", performed first as a solo kora piece and then performed as a duet. 

Yan Kuba Soho (The Gambia) "Kora Music from The Gambia";  Lattitudes; LAT 50611
Another outstanding husband and wife team. Yan Kuba Soho plays kora and sings and is accompanied by his wife Bintu Suso who adds harmony vocals. Yan Kuba Soho and Bintu Suso perform a selection of more recent kora pieces, thereby demonstrating the continued creative vitality of this tradition. 

Fodé Dramé, Djeli Keba Kouate and Bana Sissoko "Senegal"; Auvidis; SA 141005
Neither the title nor the packaging of this CD give one any hint of the gems contained within. There are just two tracks: Djeli Keba Kouate plays a 20 minute improvisation on Malinke medodies on kora and Fodé Dramé and Bana Sissoko play a 31 minute kora duet. 

Sourakata Koite and Diombo Kouyate (Senegal) "Les Griots"; KOCH International; 322 412
On most tracks Sourakata Koite (kora) and Diombo Kouyate  (balafon) play together. They both sing and there is one solo kora piece and two solo balafon pieces. Their approach to jeli music is exuberant and joyous. "Mory Mory Karambolo" "Tounkara" and "Cocala Pinceaux" are songs that stand out. This is another thoroughly enjoyable kora recording. 

M'Bady and Diayartou Kouyaté "Guinea: Kora and Song of the N'Gabou"; Musique du Monde; (Vol. 1) 92629-2 (Vol. 2) 92648-2.
I'm not sure which of these CDs is Michael's favorite, however, these two are mine. M'Bady Kouyaté is an excellent kora player and his wife Diayartou Kouyaté has a beautiful, full-bodied voice; together they produce music of rare beauty. This is jeli music at its very finest: regal, contemplative yet with a restrained passion. 

Tiramankhan Ensemble (The Gambia) "Songs from The Gambia"; SOW 90128
More excellent kora music from The Gambia (as you can tell, I have run out of superlatives). Jali Lamin Kuyateh is the lead kora player and vocalist; he is accompanied by a second kora, a djembe/sabar player and an occasional flute. 

Moriba Koita (Mali) "Sorotoumou"; Mélodie; 09279 - 2
This all-instrumental CD is a rare recording that features the ngoni, which is a small stringed instrument with skin stretched over the sound hole. Backed by Yakhouba Sissoko on kora, Moussa Sissoko on djembe, Lassana Kouyaté on balafon and Sambou Diabaté on doundoumba, Moriba Koita demonstrates what a soulful instrument the ngoni can be. This CD contains excellent solo and ensemble play and is one of my favorites among the recordings of this compilation. The track that stands out is "Diaraby" which is beginning to challenge "Lamban" as my favorite Mande melody. 

Alou Fané's Foté Mocoba (Mali) "Kamalan N'goni Dozon N'Goni"; Dakar Sound; DKS  005
Alou Fané leads Foté Mocoba, a Bambara ensemble whose five members play an assortment of instruments including balafon, electric bass and guitar, flute, drum kit and assorted percussion, n'goni and kamalan n'goni (the Bambara hunter's harp). Alou Fané plays the kamalan n'goni which resembles the kora in form but has fewer strings and generally adds a lower register ostinato. This CD contains non-stop hypnotic grooves that are complimented by Alou Fané's fiery singing. 

Camara Aboubacar (Guinea) "Baba Moussa"; Bolibana; BIP 93
This CD features modern arrangements with electric guitars, electic bass and programmed drums and is similar in style to "Le Destin" by Sekouba Bambino Diabaté. This music is bit lighter than traditional Mande kora/balfon music. Camara Aboubacar is a fine kora player and strong singer; Djianka and Oumou Diabaté add beautiful chorus singing. In sum, if you like modern as well as traditional Mande music, you should find this CD quite enjoyable. I did. 

Amadu Bansang Jobarteh (The Gambia) "Tabara"; Music of the World; CDT-129
Amadu Bansang Jobarteh is one of the grand masters of the kora and "jaliyaa". I could go on at length about his delicate touch, his artistic sensibility or his knowledge of the tradition, but I will keep things short and sweet: this CD is a must for any collection of kora and/or jeli music. 

Lamine Konte (Senegal) "Songs of the Griots"; JVC; VICG-5008-2
This is an outstanding kora recording. Lamine Konte is not only an excellent kora player, he is also a gifted singer. His music is solemn, but, in my mind, that just makes it all the more plaintive. Takada Midori adds balafon on two tracks. 

Lassina Coulibaly and Yan Kadi Faso "Music from Burkina Faso & Mali"; Musique du Monde; 92693-2
The group is called "Yan Kadi Faso" and their leader is Lassina Coulibaly; his project is to establish a creative dialogue between the musical styles of several different ethnic groups from Mali and Burkina Faso (Bambara, Fulani, Djoula, Gouin, Maninka, and Samoro). The result is an unqualified success. 

Ayub Ogaba (Kenya) "En Mana Kuoyo"; Real World; CAROL 2335-2
This is the surprise pick: Ayub Ogaba is from the Luo people of Kenya and plays the nyatiti. The liner notes don't provide a description of this instrument, but in a photo it appears to be a harp-like instrument. On some of the songs, electric bass, guitar and keyboards are added but this is by and large an acoustic recording with Ayub Ogaba's nyatiti and his sweet voice being the primary musical elements. Despite certain obvious differences in style, this CD should appeal to lovers of kora music.

Tom Daddesio