By Arts & Entertainment Editor Sawyer Pollitt
When one thinks of virtuoso musicians one most likely thinks of places like France, Germany, China, or America. It is unlikely that one would look to Mali, a landlocked West African country that for all intents and purposes shouldn’t be on the musical map. Kandiafa’s Mali Country changes this with a project that is as uniquely African as it is an amalgamation of the world’s folk music.
The standout sound on the album is the N’goni, a six-stringed instrument made from goat skin stretched over a wooden frame. Using this, Kandiafa is able to preform lighting fast melodies that would give the speediest metal guitarists a run for their money. Speed is not the only tool on Kandiafa’s belt. Mali Country combines gypsy jazz, flamenco, traditional Arabic, and Appalachian music into a mixture that is comfortingly familiar yet alien to many.
The title track Kanu draws the listener in with what may well be their first exposure to the N’goni. If I had to compare this instrument to any others, it would be a cross between a classical guitar and a harpsichord. It has the smooth naturalness of a nylon string mixed the percussiveness of a plucked note.
A bouncy rhythm section perfectly complements the melody carried by Kandiafa and supported by fiddles that lend familiarity to an unknown sound. To describe this song would be to describe distilled sunshine. It’s happy and hopeful, organic and lifted the spirits of this reviewer.
Although there is no way to know if it was intentional, the track Kele Magni, speaks to the wide range of influences found on Mali Country. The song opens with a riff that sounds like it was lifted from Boney M’s Rasputin, and I’m saying that as a good thing.
The song Mogo Sebeden, my favorite of the entire album, stands out from the others due to its relentless and melodic percussion. It is, for as far as this project goes, a banger. This track also offers an excellent opportunity to discuss the varied and nuanced percussion present in this LP.
At times, the percussion feels bold and powerful, clearly played on an instrument, although one that I cannot name. At other times, it sounds as though the only beats are being played on two stones being chipped together, or using a stick on a particularly resonant rock. Regardless of the method of production, the organic and effortless nature of each sound fits perfectly into every song.
The track N’goni play like banjo begins by riffing on the classic American folk song Yankee Doodle and maintains the motif throughout. Kandiafa does well at emulating the banjo but never tries to pass his playing off as something he is not. No matter how familiar things may sound, they also remain uniquely Malian.
Bana Magny is where the flamenco influences show themselves most heavily. For most of the album, American Folk and Appalachian Mountain music shine through as clear inspirations, however it is here that traditional flamenco styles of playing breathe even more life into the project.
My only gripe, and it is a minor one, is that the album tends to drag. That isn’t to say that each song isn’t an enjoyable and unique experience. However, when being listened to in the context of an album, it can become tedious. Kandiafa’s playing, while virtuosic and enthralling, doesn’t lend itself to a multi-track listening session. There is not quite enough variation in sonic texture to keep someone’s attention for the entire 1 hour 11 minute runtime of the project.
In contrast, when consumed individually, each track is a delicious morsel of sound that if speckled throughout a playlist, is like saffron; when used sparingly it elevates what would have been a run-of-the-mill dish into a culinary experience.
Mali Country is a solid 9 out of 10. I walked in blind and walked out with an appreciation for a style of music that I didn’t know I needed in my life. I highly recommend this album to anyone with even a passing interest in anything described above. At its core, the strength of this album is the synthesis of many genres, sounds, and styles into one cohesive work. Mali Country truly is a unique experience that can’t be found anywhere else.