The music on singer/guitarist Sidi Touré’s new CD, Koïma, is compelling enough on its own. But the current political turmoil in Mali, Touré’s West African homeland, gives many of the album’s songs new poignancy.
Koïma is the second U.S. release for Touré, whose Malian guitar-playing predecessors on the world stage include the late Ali Farke Touré, Afel Bocoum, Habib Koité, Vieux Farke Touré, Amadou Bagayoko (of Amadou & Mariam), and Ibrahim Ag Alhabib (of Tinariwen).
Issued by the Chicago-based Thrill Jockey label on April 17, the album presents Touré’s fingerpicked acoustic guitar and bluesy voice in a percolating, kaleidoscopic setting of second lead guitar, soukou (traditional indigenous violin), calabash percussion, and high-pitched female vocal counterpoints, with guest appearances by a bassist and a kurbu (three-string guitar) virtuoso.
Touré’s music taps several traditional folk-music forms of the Songhai community of northern Mali: takamba, holley, gao-gao, and shallo. Western listeners will by and large be unfamiliar with the Songhai culture and language, but as with so much global music sung in undecipherable dialects, the sound and the emotion transcend the specific social markers and references.
Still, our appreciation of music deepens the more we understand where it comes from, and the broader context for Koïmahas taken on new dimensions since Touré recorded its 10 songs. On March 20, Malian army officers staged a coup d’état in the country’s capital Bamako. Their rationale was that the president, Amadou Toumani Touré, was ineffectively managing the government’s response to the escalating rebellion of Tuareg nationalists in the north. Since the coup, the Tuaregs’ National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) has seized control of the three largest cities in northern Mali: Timbuktu, Kidal, and Gao, where Sidi Touré was born. Recent news reports tell of a power struggle in Gao between the MNLA and the Islamist group Ansar Dine. Meanwhile, some 235,000 Malians have reportedly been displaced from their homes or have gone into exile in neighboring countries.
Last week, in an email interview with Spin magazine, from his current home in Bamako, Sidi Touré talked about the relationship of his music to the current crisis. And in an April 6 editorial blogpost, the global-music website Afropop Worldwide addressed the pitfalls of contextualizing music through the priorities of Western media, using the internationally popular Tuareg band Tinariwen as the touchstone.
Suddenly, the meanings of such new Sidi Touré songs as “Ishi Tanmaha” (“They No Longer Hope”), “Aïy Faadji” (“I Am Nostalgic”), and “Tondi Karaa” (“The White Stone,” about a fabled stone that disappeared from a town square in Gao in the 1970s, triggering decades of misfortune) are magnified to tragic proportions.