Malian blues from Africa has a very distinct sound. So when you listen to Hama Sankare’s new release, Ballebe: Calling All Africans, out on the Clermont Music label, from the first notes of the album’s opening track you can’t help but recognize its provenance.
It’s no surprise to find out Sankare is a 30-year veteran of Malian music. Which would be impressive anywhere, but in Mali that means not only have you played music for that length of time, but you managed to survive the political upheavals over the years where musicians tend to become targets – the most recent of which resulted in the take over of Northern Mali by those who wished to ban music.
Though those fanatics have long since been ousted from power, their legacy lives on through the atmosphere of fear they generated and terrorist attacks which specifically target musicians and their venues. It’s because of these attacks that Africa’s most notable music festival, Festival au Desert, held just outside of Timbuktu in Northern Mali, has been cancelled because of safety concerns since 2012 and some of Mali’s most notable musicians have gone into exile.
So it’s still something of a wonder that albums like this one are being recorded in Mali. Something of a wonder, and a pleasure. For there is still no other music like Malian desert blues, and Sankare is one of the genre’s masters. He has anchored some the country’s best bands with his Calabash playing (traditional Malian percussion) and vocals, including the man many consider the modern father of contemporary Malian music, Ali Farka Toure. (Toure is best known outside Africa for the album he recorded with Ry Cooder, Talking Timbuktu, an album Sankare played on).
One of the reasons Malian music remains so vital is that while it respects its traditions, musicians use them as building blocks for their sound instead of simply doing the same thing over and over again. This album is no exception, with Sankare making use of both traditional and modern instruments in his band and adding American slide guitarist Cindy Cashdollar to his ensemble for three tracks,
To further expand the musical horizons of the recording, Sankare also enlisted American producer David Harrow to do additional production work, adding electronics and creating loops, for the album’s opening track, “Middo Wara” and its eighth track, “Maliwo Kayergaba”. The results in both cases are perfect examples of technology complementing an original sound. The synthesizer loops and other effects sound perfectly natural and like they were recorded in the same studio as the rest of the instruments instead of thousands of miles away.
While there is no translation of the lyrics included with the album, each song comes with a two-sentence summary. Some are simple but others reflect the troubles Malians are trying to put behind them. For example, track 10 (“Ketine”) is summarized by, “Listen so that our song never ends in the world”.
Musically, this is a fantastic album filled with great songs. They are divided between originals Sanakare wrote and ones he has adapted for the album. He handles almost all the vocal duties himself and his voice is clear, enthusiastic, and passionate. When he sings, not only is his voice another resonant instrument in the mix, it lets you know the emotional timbre of the piece.
Malian desert blues is one of that country’s gifts to the world. Ballebe: Calling All Africans is a great example of the genre and Hama Sankare’s expertise as a musician and band leader.