Oumou Sangaré is a hell of a woman. One of six kids raised in poverty in Mali, Sangaré is now a superstar in Africa, known as the ‘Songbird of wassoulou’ (wassoulou being a West African musical genre) and famed as a singer, businesswoman and human-rights campaigner. Her songs blare out across Bamako, Mali, her name adorns packets of rice, and she even has a car named after her, the Oum Sang. (For further evidence of her popularity, watch her being cheerfully mobbed as she walks through the streets of Bamako in the documentary Throw Down Your Heart.)
Listening to Sangaré’s fifth album, Seya, it’s easy to understand why she’s become so big. There’s her voice, for one thing: strong and lithe, but also cool like silk. And, similar to her fellow Malian artists Amadou Et Mariam and Rokia Traoré, Sangaré combines a deep sense of rootedness with breezy experimentalism and a yen for pop. For evidence, just check ‘Senkele Te Sira,’ in which twinkling plucks on traditional instruments dance alongside a fuzzy electric-guitar lick.
But what really shines is the sheer vitality that runs through Sangaré’s music; listening to the lovely, harmony-strafed ‘Senkele Te Sira’ feels like trying to breathe while on a roller coaster. ‘I say what I want and what I think because I am a free woman,’ Sangaré said in a recent interview, and if you want to hear that sentiment expressed musically, Seya is your starting point. The title’s translation? ‘Joy’.
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Beacons Of Ancestorship
At its best, Tortoise is a refreshingly sophisticated pop group that just happens to lack a vocalist. Consider ‘Prepare Your Coffin’, the lead single from the band’s sixth full-length CD: It’s a blazing three-and-a-half minute mini epic that recalls the early-’70s heyday of adventurous, fusion-infused rock. A full album of tracks this action-packed and ambitious would position Tortoise as the modern answer to Steely Dan or even Chicago.
But where ‘Prepare Your Coffin’ comes off as a beautifully fleshed-out song, many of the other tracks on Beacons Of Ancestorship merely register as expertly produced sonic sketches. Electronica-leaning pieces like ‘Northern Something’ and ‘Monument Six One Thousand’ are pleasant but unengaging, like half-baked remixes of songs you’ve never actually heard. Other pieces, such as the smoky ‘The Fall Of Seven Diamonds Plus One’ – featuring Jeff Parker’s heavily twanged guitar and percussion that sounds like rattling chains – flirt frustratingly with soundtrack schmaltz.
The album’s weak points aren’t likely to surprise long-time listeners, who have been reckoning with similarly mixed bags since 1998’s TNT. The biggest revelation of Beacons is the punky rawness evident on ‘Yinxianghechengqi’, which boasts a driving, distorted rhythm track that might have been lifted from Shellac. Assuming the band can find a way to fuse that grittiness with the prog-pop bravado of ‘Prepare Your Coffin’, its next effort just may outpace the dreaded post-rock tag once and for all.
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