I was just listening to some fine piano music written by my friend Joe Cough and it made me think of how I’d never gotten around to writing a review of one of my absolute favorite albums, one I’ve been coming back to again and again for many years now. That would be Alkibar, the debut album of Afel Bocoum, one of several notable associates of Ali Farka Toure—the other being Bassekou Kouyate—which was recorded within days of one of Toure’s many unbelievably beautiful albums, in the same abandoned Niafunke schoolhouse—the name of this place is apparently pronounced “Nee-ya-foonk”, though it’s tempting to call it Neeyafunk—with the same musicians.
Finding tracks from Alkibar on youtube isn’t so easy, but you can preview all of them on amazon.com, and the first track is available in its entirety here. When I was a kid the vocals on Paul Simon’s Graceland, provided by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, were always strangely attractive to me—because I was obviously an African in my last life (though my Korean father-in-law has claimed that I must have been a Korean)—and you find a lot of similarly exquisite singing on Alkibar, provided by a female chorus which is accompanied by Afel Bocoum himself as well as at least a couple of guitars—one of them secretly played by Ali Farka Toure, whose characteristic riffs are quite evident from the very beginning of “Yarabitala”—in addition to a fine mix of njarkas, njurkels, and calabashes, which seem to be pounded by a mix of palms and chopsticks.
The folksiness of this music is what drives me nuts; Mali’s river Djinns are speaking through the mouths and hands and fingers of these musicians. In each song you find a single melody repeated and explored a thousand times in a thousand different ways, and each variation seems to have been sung with the voice of the earth itself—which means that this music possesses you like the same demon that possessed Ali Farka Toure as a child, making you sing and dance despite having only the faintest notion of what the songs are actually about. They apparently concern Mali’s political and cultural issues (treat women with respect, stay and make the country better, don’t run away to France), which probably aren’t of great importance to the readers of this blog. But the fact that you can’t understand what the hell the people here are singing about shouldn’t take away from the experience of listening to this stuff: I actually appreciate Alkibar and other albums from around the world specifically because I don’t have to be distracted by English lyrics which are almost always inferior to the melodies they’re attached to. Here I can just focus on the music; I don’t have to whine about weak, predictable rhymes or cliche romantic metaphors.
My son is attacking me now, so I don’t have time to finish this review. I may come back and add more later. Suffice it to say, this album is great, and if you’re looking for something different, please check it out.