Get Back didn’t work as a career strategy when the Beatles invented it. But Get Back has become such a widespread pop-veterans’ gambit that it powers the three most stimulating recent African pop releases, all with ties to Mali: Ali Farka Toure’s Nia funkè, Taj Mahal and Toumani Diabate’s Kulanjan, and Salif Keita’s Papa. Although it suggests a simple return to roots, Get Back works as an all-purpose mental dodge, a way for performers to distract themselves, under the guise of boosting fundamentals, so their rejuiced music moves forward while pretending to back track. Seeking “the place where the music belongs,” Toure literally got back to Niafunkè, his desert home village in Mali, and cut the record in an abandoned, high-ceilinged building that looks like a warehouse made of sand-scrubbed bricks. Trying to “connect with ancestors who are moving about in this time zone but not in this flesh,” Mahal teamed up with Diabate’s family tradition of 71 generations playing the kora harp-lute. As a relative superstar, Keita recorded in his swank Bamako studio because “I want to give African talents a chance,” though he covered his bets by doing sessions in Paris and New York that included acid-jazz organist John Medeski, Grace Jones (talk about getting back), and guitarist-producer Vernon Reid.
Ali Farka Toure may be returning to familiar surroundings, but Nia funkè takes his audience where it’s never been. The old setting almost turns him into a new performer. He does not do concerts much anymore, and has threatened to retire outright (he’s about 60). Music has always seemed a passionate sidelight with him, which he wants devoted to a higher cause. He says he thinks of himself as a farmer, and one hears reports of his hands-on efforts to build local irrigation systems, which beats hawking candy for the rain forest. But his outlook makes his frequent com parison to old-line bluesmen even less apt. This guy is not only more re served than John Lee Hooker, he’s more ascetic than the Reverend Gary Davis.
He admits his message tunes likely won’t impress those outside Mali. True enough. The bitter farewell instrumental “Pieter Botha” is the most eloquent thing here. While every one should enjoy a tuneful praise song to cattle herders, Toure’s religious exhortations and uplift politics recall the government TV station in Lagos that used to sign off nightly with the slogan “What have you done for Nigeria today?” No, Niafunkè communicates vividly because the twists and eddies of its songs suggest how Toure’s home community interacts—his music has never operated more like his good works.
On “Ali’s Here” and “Tulumba” Toure’s guitar is dirty-toned and loud as a starving jackal at midnight. The intimate percussionists, hunting-guitar accompanists, and sun-dazed harmony singers reportedly joined in when Toure gave them a nod. If they revere him as a homeboy turned leg end, that’s an improvement over quick-fingered exotic, and you can believe the band knows all 50 members of his extended family. Those who want to meet Toure can go to 1987’s Ali Farka Toure for folkie starkness, The River for hypnotic tunes, and Niafunkè for his full-drape personality.
Back in 1992, Taj Mahal played on a couple tracks on Toure’s The Source; Toure recalled him as a likable guy who couldn’t begin to keep up on guitar. But Taj is nothing if not persistent and a quick study (his scholarly side has always prompted know-nothings to question his blues credibility), and he not only keeps up but sets the pace on Kulanjan. It’s the most relaxed, joyous account of blues-meets-Afrofolk since Johnny Copeland’s 1985 Bringin’ It All Back Home, al most its introspective mirror image. Mahal’s kora-plucking partner Diabate is in a studious historic mood himself, having just joined with Ballake Sissoko to re-create a revered collection of traditional kora duets done in 1970 by their fathers. New Ancient Strings (you’re lucky if you even know anybody who’s heard their fathers’ original album, Cordes Anciennes) is rife with profoundly pacific solos and take-it-slow surprise arrangements. Play it with John Fahey’s new reissue The Dance of Death and Other Plantation Favorites while the sun swelters slowly in the west.
Mahal has not changed since his sessions with Toure by becoming a virtuoso African picker. Wherever he visits on the map or in history, he wants to get back to the surreally cluttered front porch on the cover of his first Columbia album 30 years ago: Mahal is a story-spinner, big on ambience and light groove, who wants his crowd to appreciate his learning and smarts but doesn’t trust blowing them away. This sophisticated but risky approach makes large chunks of his back catalogue boring. His half-dozen African guests on Kulanjan keep the performances both precise and simple, and the record is carried by voices. Mahal often modifies his own to capture the long, curling Islamic phrasing of Mali singers, particularly effective on the already chant-like “Ol’ Georgie Buck.” None of his whimsies go wrong this time: neither the New Orleans shouting on the balafon (gourd xylophone) and piano feature “Fanta” nor the somber but not arid reflections on “Sahara” that end the album. In a world where the origin of the blues in Africa was more than an article of faith and major radio played fascinating tidbits that nourished the soul, the Delta-flows-into-the-desert treatment of “Catfish Blues” on Kulanjan could become a top 40 staple.
Several common perceptions of Salif Keita already seem to come from another world. His 1987 solo debut, Soro, is one of the most overpraised world-music “classics.” Fussy and fancy, with Keita’s knockout voice curling through the somber air, it’s exactly what the good-taste crowd expects of elite pop stars from any country. One wonders how many Soro advocates were familiar with Keita’s ’70s work with Les Ambassadeurs or, more important, the funky Rail Band de Bamako. Keita kept going for more classy credentials when he needed more punch—which he wasn’t going to get from producers like Joe Zawinul.
Word also has it that Keita can give slack, distracted concerts. In three tries I have yet to see one, but without question his latest round of shows debuting material on Papa raised ire among the faithful. He was supposedly getting bad advice about how to grow his audience and was diluting his precious musical fluids with “New York session players.” Judging from the show I saw in the spring and from Papa, dilution amounts to developing a brilliant, Westernized or not, relation to trap drums (by Curtis Watts and Ben Perowski) and bass lines (from Henry Schroy). Keita, like Mahal, has also altered his vocal attack. There’s more James Brown in the supersonic wails of the boogie-eulogy “Bolon” than Keita has ever shown. The next track, “Mama,” sounds like a miraculous outtake from the Talking Heads’ Naked. The big ballad “Ananamin” has conventionally pretty lineaments, but there’s none of the face-in-the-mud desperation that plagued, say, Youssou N’Dour and Neneh Cherry’s “7 Seconds.” The fretful New York mix on “Together (Gnokon Fe)” and Ver non Reid’s guitar buzzing like a p-funked wasp at the climax must be part of the dilution that offended the faithful, though similar noise science has long poured from the other guitar lead, long-term Keita partner Ousmane Kouyate. Keita has gotten back without consciously intending it.
Papa is unlike any Keita release, but it presents him where he once belonged: out of the PBS-special orbit and back, not just into the Rail Band mode, but all the way to the era of Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa.” In that time of fluid boundaries, modern African performers were citizens on the wide, crass,
speaking-in-tongues streets of urban international, a place where polyglot funk and a comely ballad can make a buck without anyone checking for proper credentials. Other voices that echo to the clouds, like Youssou N’Dour and Baba Maal, have dropped into urban international with out finding permanent lodging. Maybe Salif Keita should move in with Ver non Reid for another album and do them both some good.
Taj Mahal and Toumani Diabate play Central Park Summerstage August 14.