The past few years have seen a spate of compilations and re-releases of African popular music by figures well known in Europe and the U.S., such as Thomas Mapfumo, Tabu Ley, Franco and, of course, Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Musicians foundational to the post-Cuban explosion of local and regional styles, however, remain largely undiscovered outside their own countries. Sorry Bamba, one such pioneer for the music of Mali, Senegal and the Gambia, is finally receiving his due with the promising (if unimaginative) title Volume One: 1970-1979.
Sorry Bamba was orphaned shortly after his birth to a noble family in the city Mopti, a multi-ethnic community sitting on three islands at the confluence of the Niger and Bani rivers. Teaching himself flute and trumpet, Bamba supported himself through street performances until 1957 when he formed his first band and played the Cuban-inflected music so hot at the time. When Mali gained independence from the French in 1960, the establishment of Radio Mali and a series of national music competitions stimulated cross-pollination between the classes and peoples making up the new nation, and Bamba began the development that laid the groundwork for later generations of musicians.
This disc features highlights of the first ten years of Bamba’s career, with the bandleader singing in Bambara, Fula, Dogon and French, in addition to playing flute and trumpet. Although there are hot examples of African Rumba (“Astan Kelly,” with a strong conga background and jazzy solos provided by flute and guitar), other cuts show the roots of a wide variety of later styles. “Sekou Amadou,” for example, is Bamba’s recasting of an old praise song for Sekou Amadou (ruler of huge swaths of Mali, Senegal and the Gambia from 1773-1845), sung in Fula and French. Built on a foundation of interlocking ostinati in guitar and bass, the song lopes along in an additive three-three-two meter, Bamba singing and declaiming the poetry he learned from a descendent of Sekou Amadou’s personal griot. The very next cut, “Sayouwé,” couldn’t be more different: drums, organ, guitar and slashing horn breaks in a preview of the mbalax usually credited to Youssou N’Dour. Bamba’s twist here is that the underlying music is a paean for the ancestors of the Dogon, a song that he was granted by that normally secretive people.
In many ways Volume One takes this kind of change-up as an organizational principle. After accounting for griot and proto-mbalax music, “Porry” (“Beer”) sounds like an old Rail Band song and “Aďssé” is a lovely Cuban guajira ballad that extols the beauty of a young woman using a simple I-IV-V progression. The bulk of the cuts, however, clearly demonstrate Bamba’s Malian roots: additive triple rhythms, ostinato-based structures, slashing guitar and trumpet solos, call-and response lyrics. Fans of the music of the Sahel, whether rumba, mbalax or wassoulou, will find endless delight in this compilation.