Friday, May 18, 2012

Malian magic, Ben Zabo and absent friends.

First off I want to assert that this is a great album; play it in the car, play it in the kitchen, play it loud, late on a Friday night after too much beer and rum or just collapse into a comfortable chair and listen to it as it washes over you like the soft waters of the Niger river. Mali exerts a level of influence over Western music that is too often ignored. People remain ignorant of the fact that, like humanity, rock n' roll came out of Africa as well, from it's origins with the griots playing the kora to the transported slaves voicing their despair and subjugation using the same chording and structures to compose the Blues and from there to young white boys playing electric guitars and wanting to emulate the big boss men like John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton.

Today Mali still delivers and this album is another in a long line of artists that illustrate how this riven country still punches above its weight artistically. Ben Zabo, whose band is named after him, started his career as an engineer at Studio Bogolan in Bamako working on albums by the likes of Tamikrest and the legendary Lobi Traoré. Like any young studio engineer he had his own music inside him and now it's out there.

Channelling Afro-beat through the prism of contemporary Malian music, insistent rhythms, clattering percussion and rivulets of icy, bright guitar laid over with the smooth harmonies of Western Africa Zabo delivers a cascade of sensation. Ironically his guitar work conjures up images of Amadou Bagayoko, from Amadou and Mariam, but the sleevenotes for this album studiously avoids any mention of the biggest selling African act of all time. On Sènsènbo the guitar, marimba and bassline sinuously intertwine in a way that brings to mind some of the work on Welcome To Mali; that's not to say that there's any plagiarism going on here, merely that acknowledgement of the road that has been opened up by the likes of Amadou and Mariam and Tinariwen is absent.

That small niggle aside Ben Zabo is carving his own path. Working with Chris Eckman (The Walkabouts, Dirtmusic) Zabo has crafted a polished début that has all the quality and skill required from a master musician, one that in a world unafraid of language and subtitles would propel this majestically to the upper reaches of the charts. Personally I would rather hear this on repeat than listen to Jessie J, Ed Sheeran or anything on The Voice. We live in a globalised economy; it would be wonderful if music could be a part of that too.

That's what I think.