issue 20 :: September 2011

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Review: Bougouni Yaalali


Bougouni Yaalali CD [Yaala Yaala Records]

With almost no documentation contained within, this set of various artists and street performers actually manages to become an almost visual experience. Recorded in Mali in 1999 and 2000 at “house parties, soundtracks to checkers games, fêtes, in the shade of a mango tree while temperatures hovered around 115 degrees” is something that one can’t help but picture while listening to the songs as they fade in and out. Mali is a place where it seems as if every man is a musician of some sort and they improvise by modifying their instruments with anything available such as bottle caps and old car parts, usually for added resonance or distortion. The country is also credited as one of the original sources for modern blues since the passionate vocal delivery is not only accompanied by a rhythmic pedal tone, but the lyrics tell stories of current and ancestral events.
However, I don’t speak any Malian languages and don’t have an interpreter so all I have to guide me is the intense performances. Did they perform for the recorders, or was this happened upon in mid-delivery? I would guess maybe a little of both, but either way this music is very alive. Most of the songs are accompanied by the donso ngoni, a string instrument pitched somewhere between a bass and a guitar, and a type of washboard, the karagnan, which is a serrated metal tube that is scraped with a metal stick. The songs that are only accompanied with hand drums seem less intimate since voices of other vocalists and audience members float in and out view, indicating a more public space. There is one track that uses the amplified thumb piano sound recently made famous by the Konono Group recordings. And for a nice finale the disc ends on a quiet note just listening to night insects and the chirps of frogs while somewhere in the distance a child’s voice is heard faintly, only further blurring the distinction between performance and field recording.
Review by Jacob Green, a musician and film lover living in Austin, Texas.
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