To write that there is something mathematical about the opening to Ballake Sissoko’s Tomora is to fall into the trap of writers who know nothing about math—do the tones approximate the quadratic equation or differential calculus?—and the statement is so redundant it’s as if I’m calling the music musical, or pleasant, or infinite; so instead I’ll just write that there is something spectacular about the first pseudo-glissando on the album, a resonating descent into a “musical landscape”, or, more appropriately, universe, where absolutely every thought and pattern is as lavish and sumptuous as the golden palaces of ancient Mali (whence the traditions here originate), and just as new and unknown.
There’s a prevalent ignorance outside Africa that asks, “Besides ancient Egypt, what did Africans ever really achieve?”, which is the same as asking “Besides writing Anna Karenina, what did Tolstoy ever really accomplish?” One of the answers to that question is ancient and medieval Mali, which was relatively famous in the Middle Ages for the far-shining luminousity of its wealth, the reputation of its schools (considered to be the best, period), and the distant, unreal, and fairytale-like quality of its lands, which is where some of the culturally subconscious notions related to Timbuktu come from, and where the classical traditions you hear in albums like Tomora probably have their origins.
Centuries of Colonialism dimmed their achievements and the achievements of others, as Africans had to be first lowered in the European racial hierarchy so they could be lifted up again, principally by enslaving millions of them and stealing everything of value in their lands. And today Africa is still humiliated by the formidable forces of globalization and the AIDS epidemic, but the immense talent of some of its musicians—some of whom, like the slightly more famous Toumani Diabate, descend from seventy generations of griots, or West African wandering troubadours—is opening up the African pre-Colonial past in a way I think few other methods of historiography ever could, even if the music has plenty of modern influences and even if the past was in no way as ideal as I’ve made it out to be and was, in fact, probably quite brutal and short for most of the people who were unlucky enough to be born into it, a fact true for pretty much everyone of almost every time—except, of course, for ours, where some are at least are afforded the pleasure of listening to great music as much as we like.
But if you think the album is some kind of paean to an idealistic history that never was, or just a collection of field recordings, you’ll be surprised by some of the most spectacular songs you could ask for—Handarezo and Berekoy feature fast rhythms and melodies with the most beautiful instruments you’ve never heard or heard of, and both have this odd quality of seeming to charge up and amass all their melodic strength before the song even really begins, and before the mighty one-stringed violin known as the njarka starts to tempt, taunt, lull, and mesmerize with its parched Saharan beauty, until it explodes into an unearthly solo that has some faint relationship with the wailing electric guitars of American blues, and then returns to the original pattern, backed by a singer who just shouts “Handarezo!” again and again, and an assortment of glittering strings and one ringing, rumbling, xylophonic marimba.
Many other songs are worth the price of admission. There is something really truly simply beautiful about the wandering improvisations of Berekolan, particularly the meanderings of the very beginning, the way it leaps away into the dark like a ghost spotted in the forest; Lasidan reaffirms one’s faith that human beings can sometimes do good things, and re-enact the immensity of the creation of the universe on a smaller but, proportionately, just as artistic scale; the fifth track, Sy, is an explication of that same universe, in which the kora and Ballake Sissoko were thankfully born.
The one track that really falls short is the ninth, Koungo, suffering from a seemingly peculiarly West African insistence on shouting over singing, a fault even with a track or two of the truly excellent Afrocubism, and even a number of Ali Farka Toure’s songs, where, as one reviewer noted, you’ve really gotta keep your hand on the volume so the guy doesn’t destroy your ears with a long, overtly loud and overtly drawn-out melodic scream. This is the sole weakness of Ali Farka Toure’s music, hurting more than a few of the beautiful songs on Radio Mali, an album I have, nonetheless, easily listened to, to the detriment of my poor ears (but the betterment of my heart and mind), over a thousand times. I should note in passing that that work of art contains my favorite song ever, the short, fast, unbelievable, njarka-accompanied Gambari.
And that’s that.