Burkina Electric’s PR hook is that they are Burkina Faso’s (a land-locked West African nation formerly known as Upper Volta) first electronica band. This ignores several inconvenient points; that most of the band lives most of the time in Brooklyn and one member lives in Germany, that Burkina Faso has a robust hip hop scene that is no stranger to electronic beats, and that electronica has to be one of the most meaningless tags on earth. But the group’s name does clue you in to their music’s rootedness in the traditions of Burkina Faso, the homeland of four of BE’s members, and their predominantly plugged-in sound.
Percussionist/composer/improviser Lukas Ligeti (son of Gyorgy) is the group’s lynchpin; he and German electronician (and D.A.F./Der Plan vet) Kurt “Pyrolator” Dahlke had first met BE’s Burkinabè (denizens of Burkina) during a 1994 sojourn in the Ivory Coast, and gave them all a call a decade later when an Austrian cultural organization invited him to put a tour together that involved electronics and the music of Burkina Faso. They gelled on that tour and ultimately solidified into a six-piece group that includes Ligeti, Pyrolator singer Maï Lingani, guitarist Wende K. Blass, background singer-dancers “As” Zoko Zoko and “Vicky” Idrissa Kafando.
Burkina Electric consider themselves “post-intercultural,” a notion that nicely skirts familiar Afro-pop paradigms. The African musicians aren’t hired hands backing well-heeled Westerners, nor are they required to adhere to old-fashioned traditional styles that no one wants to hear back home, nor have they gone to Paris to try and cramp their styles into an existing World Music marketing niche. BE’s music sounds like the outcome of a free exchange between the non-Africans, who handle all the keyboards and rhythms, Lingani’s flexible, poly-lingual singing, and Wende’s son-of-soukous picking. Ligeti is sufficiently steeped in African rhythm lore to keep the music from sounding like a streamlined hybrid. In fact, the grooves are least interesting when they are most obviously Western, such as the drably familiar slow-jam “Saaga” and the gaseous electro-funk beat that dominates the first part of “Ligdi.” “Ca Va Chauffer,” on the other hand, feels like a genuine mix, especially during the break where layers of hand percussion overlay the thumping bass and lilting guitar, and “Sankar Yaaré” achieves a similarly successful mix with punched-in guitar samples.
Paspanga is a pretty choppy listen and at best a qualified success, but it wouldn’t be nearly as appealing with any other singer. Lingani not only sounds equally committed to the adapted traditional folk tales and the would-be dance-club bangers, she’s got the chops to authoritatively deliver both and the charisma to make you pay attention. She can’t save every dud, but she never sounds like she doesn’t believe in what she’s doing.