Mandingo Ambassadors – Tougna (2012)

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source: Mandingo Ambassador’s Facebook page

Since around the 13th century, the Kouyaté family has upheld a proud tradition as oral historians and folk virtuosic musicians, or griots, serving ancient kings who once ruled over West Africa. Guinean guitarist Mamady Kouyaté followed in his family’s tradition when his country’s first president Sékou Touré encouraged the development of a homegrown contemporary music within Guinea. Kouyaté heeded the call and during the 70s performed in local dance bands that updated the traditional Manding folk music to a modern sound that incorporated American jazz and R&B. Kouyaté, like his contemporaries in Guinea, transposed the melodies and riffs of the ancient balafon and kora instruments onto the electric guitar. In 2004 Kouyaté moved to NYC to escape political persecution from his home country and formed the Mandingo Ambassadors.

An eight-piece band that draws from Guineans and westerners alike, the ensemble boasts a couple of guitarists (Kouyaté, Mamady Kourouma), two jazz horn players who are heavily into the world-music scene (Oran Etkin and Sylvain Leroux), an electric bassist (Nick Cudahy), a drummer (Andy Algire), percussionist (Foluso Mimy) and vocalist (Bébé Camara). Contemporary dance music coming from a country in West Africa makes it tempting to label it “Afrobeat” and the music share some similarities with it. But this isn’t Afrobeat. The music is joyful, with more guitar, less horn — or at least, less of the big horn riffs — and closer to the local folk music from which it’s derived.

With this lighter sound, the guitarists, especially Kouyaté, are at its core. While Kourouma’s rhythm consists of picking out the harmony one clipped, percussive note a time, Kouyaté lines resonate and sparkle in contrast, and the two competing streams combined enliven and colorize the music. Kouyaté’s lead lines ring with the rich tradition of his homeland, but with the technical proficiency of an advanced jazz guitarist (notably on the tracks “Alimatou,” Maloyamagny” and “Kaira,”) and while Camara’s vocals sung in the Malinké language might not be understood by most listeners, she is skilled at wrapping her voice around the melody, making it a true instrument alongside the guitars and horns. Leroux and Etkin get their chances to express themselves too, as with the jazzy expressions they trade off on “Alimatou,” Etkin’s nifty clarinet solo on “Kensan” (video of live performance above), and Leroux’s fanciful flute on “Fakoly.” Though both of them grew up in cultures worlds apart from Kouyaté’s, their performances here demonstrate they get it and are able to find their own spaces comfortably within the music.

It’s a shame that Mamady Kouyaté had to seek refuge from the country whose modern culture he devote his life toward enriching. On the flip side, he’s enriching and delighting American audiences with the lively, lyrical music of Guinea. It’s rather easy to find refuge in the music of the Mandingo Ambassadors’ Tougna.

July 24 is the street date for Tougna, and will be sold by Engine Studios. Visit Mamady Kouyaté’s website for more info.

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S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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