As I write this review, armed Islamist groups have just captured Gao, in northern Mali, and the country's National Commission on Human Rights is reporting rapes and looting throughout that city and others along the Niger River in the southern Sahara, including the fabled Timbuktu. Singer/guitarist Sidi Touré, whose second American-released album is due this month, comes from Gao. Although the recording of Koïma pre-dates Mali's recent turbulance, it arrives just in time for those who belive music matters during conflict.
Touré's 2011 album Sahel Folk had been a mesmerizing but modest mix of guitar-based duets with fellow Malian musicians on songs played in the Songhai tradition — repetitive sounds centered on Touré's percussive strumming and finger-picking over words sung in his native language. The album had the raw feel of old field recordings, and was a bit of a surprise coming from the Chicago indie Thrill Jockey, a label known more for its roster of adventurous post-punk bands — the Sea and Cake, Eleventh Dream Day, Califone — than for deeply traditional African music.
Though it is based in the same traditions, Koïma opens the lens on Touré's prodigious talent with a bigger sound and more richly textured performances. Whereas Sahel Folk had been more of a free-form jam among friends taped at the home of Touré's sister, the guitarist recorded the new album in an actual studio with a full band including a second guitar, a soukou (violin), a percussion instrument made from the calabash goard, and a backup female singer. The album explodes from the outset with the bright, effervescent guitars of "Ni See Ay Ga Done" ("It's To You That I Sing"), a song built on Gao's takamba dance rhythms and whose lyrics offer praise to Mali's former prime minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta. From there Touré keeps the spirits high on tracks ranging from the spare, bluesy, male-female call-and-response of "Aïy Faadji" ("Am I Nostalgic?") and the slithery "Woy Tiladio," another song of praise for women that translates as "Beautiful Woman, Goddess of Water," to the hypnotic "A Chacun Sa Chance" ("To Each His Own Luck"). It may take more than luck to get northern Mali through its current troubles, but if music truly does have the power to heal and lift souls, Sidi Touré's latest collection could be the country's saving grace.