Last of His Kind

Mamane Barka – Introducing Mamane Barka
Mamane Barka

Introducing Mamane Barka (World Music Network INTRO114CD, 2009)

Will every instrument originating on African soil eventually be heard by the rest of the world’s ears? Much as I’d like to think so, it’s probably not possible. While instruments like the kora, ngoni and sintir have become ever more visible on the world stage, there are doubtless many more that fall into obscurity or near-extinction.

After helping to rescue the Ghanaian seprewa from such a fate with the delightful Seprewa Kasa album, World Music Network now turns their attention to the biram. It’s a big, boat-shaped five-string harp with sonic similarities to the Ethiopian krar and Egyptian simsimiyya, and Niger’s Mamane Barka is reportedly the only remaining person on earth who plays it with the sort of proficiency it deserves. He demonstrates as much throughout this CD, which is light on frills but heavy on beautifully unspoiled music that seems to spring from the very heart and soul of the Sahara.

Plucking deftly on the biram’s strings like a man possessed or exploring the instrument’s more delicate tones, Barka sets up an unwaveringly mighty musical dialogue with percussionist Oumarou Adamou on both traditional and newly composed pieces.

Most of the songs have a scrambling, locomotion feel fueled by Barka and Adamou filling the space between reedy vocal passages with a deft interplay that, while obviously honed, has a spontaneity to it as well. Like a lot of roots music from the same region, precursory traces of what we now call blues can be heard.

The CD’s back cover does in fact descriptively toss off the phrase “desert blues,” and though the term has suffered from over-use, it’s good to hear it applied to music with elements as traditional as this (and not only to guitar bands like Tinariwen).

So if you want some unplugged but explosive desert blues or are simply keen on hearing a fellow who at every turn shows a passion for preserving his chosen instrument, you got it. Let’s hope both Barka and the biram stick around for more.

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