Mali has endured a lot of late. A military coup in 2012 brought an abrupt end to democracy in the country – once seen as a model for the whole of Africa – destabilising the north in the process and leaving it to the mercy of Islamic extremists, who declared independence and enforced strict Sharia law. It took the might of the French military to overwhelm the extremists, although things still remain unstable.
Samba Touré, who in pictures has the look and stride of someone cheerful and sanguine, expresses the turbulence within his country with his third album, Albala – Songhai for ‘danger’ or ‘risk’.
Indeed, Touré – a protégé of the late Ali Farka Touré - has produced a record teeming with emotions – from defiance and desperation to pride and optimism. This is reflected in the album’s artwork, with shades of red indicating the so-called danger and risk, a figure staring defiantly at the camera, one woman turned melancholically away while another has smirk on her face. Meanwhile, two anonymous and mysterious figures linger in the background.
Album opener Be Ki Don – or ‘Everybody Dance’ – presents Mali as a nation holding artists in high esteem, while also celebrating it as a welcoming and vibrant place: “Everyone welcomes Samba Touré,” he gently croons in a mixture of Songhai, Peul and Bambara – three of the main languages spoken in Mali, in turn symbolising the country’s differences but also Touré’s desire for unity.
Indeed, Touré uses Be Ki Don as a platform to suggest this: “Why do you not talk together?” he says, “brothers and sisters, couples, talk to each other… life lasts only a few days.” Here, embedded inside a gentle song celebrating his country’s culture, is a warning – be united, even with the mixture of languages and cultures, as we’re not here for very long. Yet beneath this supposed sanctity for the artist are the consequences of the extremists, who reportedly banned music in northern Mali. The notion of Mali as a fractured state is heightened.
Following track Fondora – ‘Leave Our Road’ – is beautifully simplistic yet highly poignant, with the lyrics again grabbing one’s attention: “I say, leave our road. All killers leave our road… Rapists, leave our road. Betrayers, leave our road…” – sentiments relevant to our own world, not just Touré’s Mali. Yet Touré also shows the fractured state of Mali once again, recounting the attempts by extremists to take Timbuktu and impose Sharia law. In the process, Touré also exposes the hypocrisy one finds with religion: “They say they want to teach us to pray? They only brought hated, violence and sadness.”
With Albala so driven by its direct lyrics, the music can, at times, seem secondary. Yet the musicianship on the album is, in parts, deeply hypnotic; on Awn Bè Ye Kelenye – ‘We Are All Malians’ – Madou Sanogo’s conga and Djimé Sissoko’s ngoni merge together to create something wonderfully trance like, with the serenity of the music and Touré positive – and once again unifying – message suggesting that wherever you’re from in the country, “You are a child of Mali”.
Meanwhile, on Aye Sira Bila – ‘Open The Road’ – Sissoko’s precise and joyful sounding ngoni contrasts the dischordant, if subtly muted, guitar in the background of Hugo Race, a man who has played with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. Here, the music perfectly mirrors Touré’s lyrics, which praise development yet also scold inequality: ”Open the road. Officials arrive. When one is important, he has not to force the passage… They promised development, it started well. They asked for the people’s trust and they have it…” Here, Touré chooses to sing in Bambara compared to the more frequent Songhai – a deliberate choice, again illustrating the differences that exist.
Title track and instrumental Albala strikes a balance between resignation and hope, with the docile acoustic guitar and bass against the vibrant ngoni. Ago Djamba – ‘Life Betrays Men’ – carries on this balance, again focussing on the nation’s inequality (“I have no job, the boss has only to look at my poor clothing”) and featuring Eboué’s desperate, soulful cries of “Ago djamba”, yet enshrines some positivity once again: ”Trust your heart…life betrays us…but I can say ‘I love you’.” In the end, for Touré, love is all that matters.
Album closer Bana – ‘Rain’ – again questions the idea of faith. Here, Touré praises the coming of the rains – “We thank God for [he] grant us the rain” – until, that is, the rain’s destructive, never-ending power becomes evident: “Crops in my village are destroyed… God, what will you have to eat after that rain?” says an impassioned Touré, the jagged guitar emphasising the destruction.
Albala may be an album influenced by Mali’s troubles, offering a deeper insight into the country’s troubles in the process. Yet with Touré’s focus on injustice, inequality and the duplicity of faith, it’s an album that should resonate with everyone, regardless of culture or nation – and this is unifying in itself. An engaging and rather captivating record.