El Hadj Djeli Sory Kouyate is one of the greatest balafon players in West Africa. He is the Director of the prestigious Ensemble Instrumental National of Guinea where he formed generations of the best musicians of his nation.
He has toured the world for many years, starting in the 1960s with the original Ballets Africains of Keita Fodeba; then, as accompanist to one of the greatest singers of his generation: Sory Kandia Kouyate; and later, as a member of the famous show “Africa Oye.”
“We have to maintain dignity with each other whoever we are – from city or country, young or old, wise, poor and no matter how rich … it can all be gone tomorrow,” says Ghanaian percussionist, vocalist and flutist Nii Okai Tagoe. In keeping with that statement, he gives equal, fair attention to every player and instrument on this record. This is not an attempt to return to any roots, but a utilization of old and new, traditional and innovative, Ghanaian and Western musical tools to build a coherent narrative.
The eleven songs each have their own power and message, and the album leaves the listener feeling that his or her perspective is enhanced. Liner notes include statement summaries to accompany each song. The first cut, “Nyungmbo,” has the message, “Leave me, watch me and let me show you what I can do. A mother always feels pain when a child is crying.” The third, “Moni Sane Yemi,” is, “When you know you are in the right, don’t rush. Rushing could cost you your rights. Don’t worry, justice will come.” “Mile Mi Ley,” the seventh tune, is accompanied by the observation, “If we knew tomorrow, the way we’d approach today would be different.”
Expressing these thoughts with a number of African percussion instruments and a full, modern Western jazz band, Mr. Tagoe gives us a CD full of drive, tangents, rhythm and drive. It will draw listeners toward genres and thoughts, but not lock them into any one standard record store bin. This release could be filed under jazz, rock, world or modern folk.
Thank you, Nii Okai Tagoe, for having so much to say.
The lineup on West to West includes Nii Okai Tagoe on balafon, jembe, gome drum, kpalongo drums, chene (calabash), axatse (shaker), gankogui (bell), djun djun, brekete drum, tama (talking drum), and lead and backing vocals; Jose Joyette (Michael Jackson/George Harrison/Amy Winehouse)on drum kit; Alexander K. Boateng on drum kit; Tim Robinson on drum kit; Alfred ‘Kari’ Bannerman (Osibisa) on guitar; Wendell Richardson on guitar; Jez King on guitar; Martin Craddick (Baka Beyond) on guitar; Davide Cammelli on guitar; Derrick McIntyre (Jamiroquai & Beverley Knight) on bass; Emmanuel Rentzos (Johnny Nash/Roy Ayers) on keyboards; Paddy le Mercier (Baka Beyond) on violin; Ellen Mason on harp; Colin Graham (Wham/UB40) on trumpet; Jon Petter on saxophone; and Molara on backing vocals.
“Fama Denke” is a traditional Malian song to make a note of.
One of the joys of traditional Malian music is that its corpus is a repertoire that spans thousands and thousands of years; some songs let us into the psychologies and mentalities of humans living in historical conditions that we cannot fathom who first composed these songs. The fact that the song continues to be sung is the icing on the cake. Not only are we let into ancestral psychologies and the mentalities but we along with others enjoy being let in. Some old songs are just incredibly beautiful however obscure their lyrics may feel. One such song is “Fama Denke.” Malian heavyweight Ballake Sissoko, amongst many other greats, has interpreted it on his album Tomora. “Fama Denke” translates to “Son of the King.” It is a song that reminds a fallen Prince to keep his composure despite having to face capital punishment because of his betraying his father in 1898, as West African Kingdoms had all fallen into the hands of colonial powers.
The prince in question’s name is not fully agreed upon. Some say that his name was Diaoulé Karamoko and others say that it was Djale-Karamorgho. What’s agreed on is that he was the son of Almamy Samory Toure, who belongs to the same lineage as the Guinean ex-President Sekou Toure. Almamy Samory Toure founded a short lived Empire, the Islamic Kingdom of Wassoulou that encompassed parts of present-day Mali, Guinea, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone. Samory Toure is a considered a major figure in West African political history because of his conquests. Diaoulé was sent by has father to be an Ambassador in France and when he returned, he had conceived of his own projects and began to influence the Empire’s army. He was put to death b popular verdict.
“Fama Denke” begins with a display of instrumental prowess before any of lyrics are sung. The griot then proceeds to sing what sounds like a lament but is not. The Kora playing is generally easier to fall into then the words, given how removed the lyrics are from contemporary life. It is not a universal song that speaks to average conditions and that’s what’s fascinating about it standing the test of time. It is incredibly composed and a gorgeous song more so than anything else.
There are traditional several ways to play “Fama Denke”. The most traditional “Fama Denke” is played on a Kora in Sauta tuning or Tomora Meseng tuning. Both Sauta tuning and Tomora Meseng tuning are traditional ways to tune a Kora and are used to reflect local dialects. Tomora Meseng is meant to be a thinner pitch than the Tomoraba, the oldest way to tune a Kora.
Both Sauta tuning and Tomora Meseng are Eastern Gambian tuning, though Malian players most likely brought the tuning with them during their migrations. “Fama Denke” can also be played on two balafons as a purely instrumental song. Finally, the song “Fama Denke” gave birth to the more popular song “Kana Kassi,” which translates to “Do Not Cry,” a song which much more attuned to contemporary life that is often sung as a lullaby or even as a love song.
The song Fama Denke is a great listen and a great introduction to the end of the West African 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Most of all, however, it is a beautiful composition that has stood the time because of its magnificence.
Headline photo: Ballake Sissoko
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