After you find the source, what’s next? In the case of Fanga, the answer is to navigate another stream. On their own, the French ensemble has mastered the form well enough to challenge Antibalas’s spot at the head of the Afrobeat revival line, and their brisk touring schedule attests to their enduring popularity in Europe and around the Mediterranean. In 2007, they made a record with drummer Tony Allen, the beat scientist who drove Fela’s great 1970s recordings; you can’t get any closer to the style’s headwaters.
This collaboration began at a Moroccan festival in 2011, when they performed with a Gnawa troupe led by Maâlem Abdallah Guinéa. It’s not an obvious combination; although Gnawa music has roots in sub-Saharan Africa, it and Afrobeat are at best very distant kin. One is a centuries-old tradition that uses chants, drumming and the visceral bass lines of the guimbri (a three-stringed, camel-skin-covered lute) to supplicate for the intervention of divine entities for the purposes of healing, while the other is a much more recent invention which infuses highlife with American funk and jazz. Where they meet, according to their video mini-documentary, is in their shared devotion to the trance. Each wants to induce an altered state, and while the musical elements are different, the common goal turns out to be enough to make this a successful collaboration.
Apparently neither party speaks much of the other’s language, so the record’s six pieces evolved out of the one that they have in common — playing. The process involved each sharing something to the other, who in turn figured out what they could add to it, and this additive method is quite evident throughout. The album opens with echo-veiled baritone sax and electric piano swirls, then a tough funky groove kicks in; it’s a classic Afrobeat gambit, only slightly updated for the new century. And then, two minutes in, the game changes as Guinéa’s guimbri rides in on a carpet of clattering metal castanets. Even though they’re synched right into Fanga’s beat, they seem to hover above it. Then Fanga’s singer, a fellow from Burkina Faso who goes by the singular name Korbo, throws down with an almost too Fela-like declamation, striding atop both ground and carpet. When he’s done, Guinéa and crew take his place for some call-and-response chanting; then an organ solo comes in to nail that Egypt 70 shimmy. If this is fusion cooking, they’ve balanced the spices well enough to come up with a dish that tastes mighty good.