Andra Kouyate Release Too Much of the Same Groove

Studio Mali

*  *

Malian music covers a lot of turf. Some of it is so bluesy that American artists such as Taj Mahal find instant affinity with it; some of it unfolds with dancers in mind and is heavy on percussive backbeats. Still more showcases Malian guitarists and their cascading riffs. Andra Kouyaté represents the Saharan north and its desert griot traditions. Alas, his new 16-track release is a bit like the desert for my tastes–too expansive and short on variety.

The good news is that he’s nurturing a new generation; Séké Chi is a youthful ensemble that supplements his ngoni playing with its hand drums, bass, balafon, voices, additional ngoni, and hand claps. There’s no denying Kouyaté’s skill as an instrumentalist; in his hands the ngoni­ sizzles. (The ngoni is a West African instrument that’s akin to a cross between a banjo and a small guitar.) The ngoni is a perfect instrument for laying down quick tempos, or for fading into the background like a ukulele backing hula singers. Kouyaté is an undisputed master of the instrument, and he extends its boundaries to draw upon funk, reggae, jazz, and slack key influences. He’s also a soulful singer. More good news: The younger players backing Kouyaté are quite talented.

So why only two stars? The album cuts big pieces from the same cloth and calls it a quilt. Even when Kouyaté crosses genres, as in the reggae-influenced title track, the album’s tones, moods, and melody lines all have the same hypnotic feel and groove. It’s like a jazz composition building up to something it never gets around to developing. You’ll probably find yourself swaying meditatively for a time, but after a while you’ll snap out of it and wonder, “Is this all there is?” In the end, it's all hooks but the same groove. The problem is compounded by the fact that the album is at least four tracks too long. It would have been wiser to pare the tracks and intersperse the few changes of pace–the dancey “Aye Anfle,” the keening vocals of “Maningaken,” and the joyful “Den Massa Lou”–amidst the trance tempos of most of the pieces. (It would have been an even better idea to turn loose the young players and let them rock out a bit.) Overall the album is too quiet and monochromatic. Call it a good idea, but a missed opportunity.--Rob Weir

Check out the 9-minute "Yankalou" on YouYube. If it doesn't seem too much of the same to you, ignore my review! 

No comments: