Western audiences are increasingly accustomed to long waits between albums from major artists. Even those who waited so ardently for Kate Bush to release Aerial might be surprised by the fact that Sahel Folk is major North Malian musician Sidi Touré’s first internationally distributed album in the best part of 16 years.
It is considerably lighter and more reflective than his driving debut, and those familiar with the loping guitar ostinatos of Ali Farka Touré‘s Savane or the late Lobi Traore‘s majestic solo album from last year should have some idea of what to expect. Indeed, Sidi has been hailed by no less an authority than Bassekou Kouyate as “a worthy heir to Ali Farka Touré”, an artist devoted to the Songhai tradition.
All this comes in spite of having been, much like another great musician Salif Keita, born into a noble family with rather different expectations. Family members did more than frown upon Sidi’s chosen path; his elder brother apparently smashed a number of Sidi’s homemade guitars in anger. There is little resentment or frustration on display here though. Sahel Folk is more a product of an individual ambition to sustain and promote a tradition, a craft and an art.
In addition to this, Sidi adds a distinctively contemporary flavour. Sometimes he works with traditional materials, while at others he sings of how his country might address the need for change and modernisation. Whilst the original intention had been to produce a sort of audio documentary about the musical and cultural traditions of Sidi’s hometown of Gao, the project eventually turned out to have a wider purpose.
Reflective and refined as Sahel Folk undoubtedly is, it is certainly not dour. Every song features a guest appearance that fleshes out the sound, but there is a directness and spontaneity at the heart of these spirited first or second take performances. The duo setting seems to suit Sidi particularly well, and the whole album has a relaxed, warm and intimate feeling. This is perhaps in part due to the whole project having been completed in two days of ‘field recordings’ at Sidi’s sister’s house. Adema features the mellifluous vocals of Jiba Touré (Sidi’s voice is more conversational), whilst the lengthy, compelling Taray Kongo is blessed with the masterful kuntigui playing of Jambala Maiga. There are many moments that seem gently celebratory (particularly the tremendous Djarli Ber).
Everything about Sahel Folk is resolutely unshowy. Even Sidi Touré’s distinctive guitar playing, characterised by creative and dexterous picking, is delivered in a relaxed, decidedly unobtrusive style. Sometimes substantial shifts in rhythm or feel go almost unnoticed because they are ushered in so deftly and seamlessly. By its conclusion, the opening track Bon Koum has actually reached a very different place from where it began, but it feels completely continuous and coherent.
Sahel Folk is refreshing, especially when set against the fact that many bands can spend months or years tinkering in studio settings for what they deem to be the perfect sound. It offers a reminder that tradition and history can be a vital ingredient of music, incorporated without slavish reverence and without compromising on individual approach and ideas. It also suggests that there the warm musical relationship of friends and close associates can produce immediate, beautifully warm results. Hopefully this excellent album will bring Sidi Touré to wider attention in Europe and beyond.