In the 1970s while we were having to endure the last thrashings of pompous and overblown prog rock bands such as Genesis and Yes and seeking solace in the adrenalin infusion that punk gave us, in Mali they were listening to two of the finest bands to come out of Western Africa, the Rail Band and Les Ambassadeurs du motel de Bamako. It is nothing short of scandalous that it was over a decade later and thanks to the pioneering work of DJs like the late lamented Charlie Gillett (who also introduced the world to Ian Dury) and the interest in what is euphemistically and patronisingly dubbed world music created by Paul Simon’s Graceland (albeit for South African music) before many of us were exposed to the wonderful music emanating from that part of the world.
Dance bands were popular in Mali and Les Ambassadeurs was formed at the behest of the military junta to entertain favoured clients at the popular venue by the side of the Niger and under the shade of mango trees, the Motel De Bamako. Their style is an African take on Cuban music, mixing catchy Latin rhythms and tempos with native instruments and the ubiquitous guitar, one of the few positive influences from the mixing of African and Western soldiers during the Second World War.
This album, a 2 CD set, sees Les Ambassadeurs in their pomp in the mid-1970s and features the wonderful soaring vocals of Salif Keita, whose 1987 breakthrough album, at least as far as Western audiences were concerned, Soro, still remains one of my all-time favourites. Salif, lured from their fierce rivals, the Rail Band, is in majestic and spine-chilling form. The balafon, played by Kaba Kante, a type of xylophone with hardwood slats and calabash resonators underneath, together with kora and keyboards features against a rhythm laid down by drums, including the talking drum, guitar and brass. The stand-out tracks are Mana Mana and Djandio.
The vocals on Fatema are provided by Ousmane Dia on an arrangement featuring flute and violin and for sheer beauty you will go a long way to beat the stately Yassoumoukan which is a stately wedding song.
The second CD features tracks from the vaults of Radio Mali. Not unsurprisingly the sound quality is a bit mixed but the verve and drive of the music shines through any technical imperfections.
The band is a veritable Malian super-group. As well as Keita the album features the guitarists Kante Manfila and Amadou Bagayoko (he of Amadou and Miriam fame) with Idrissa Soumaoro on keyboards. In 1977 the band in reaction to the worsening economic and political climate in Mali moved to Abidjan and thence some headed to Paris. It was whilst in Abidjan that the band recorded perhaps their biggest international hit, Mandjou.
A wonderful album and proof, if proof was needed, that here in the West we really did live in a hermetically sealed vacuum. It makes you wonder how much more wonderful music has passed us by.