I think it was Ali Farka Touré's 1990 album The River, that got me hooked to (Malian) desert blues. Samba's latest album reminds me strongly of The River. Striped down to a trio of guitar, ngoni and percussion (plus an occasional harmonica, eg in the fine Instrumental), many of the songs have an almost hypnotical effect on the listener.
Another great offering by this artist and the good people of Glitterbeat!
Favorite track: Fondo.
The legendary Malian singer/guitarist returns with his most personal and immersive album to date. Intimately recorded with a small
band, "Binga" dives deep into Samba's Songhoy roots.
Moody Sahelian atmospheres. Cautionary tales. Hopes for better days.
During the 15th and 16th centuries the Songhoy people ruled the largest empire in Africa. It stretched across the entire western Sahel, famed for the glory that was Timbuktu. People called it the city of gold, known across the world as a centre of culture and learning.
But there’s another place that lies a little under a hundred kilometres south of that history, one whose name few people know. Binga is the region that encompasses the vast space below the Saharan desert in Mali. This is where guitarist and singer Samba Touré grew up, and it still owns his heart – Binga is the title of his fourth Glitterbeat album.
“I never left Binga,” he explains. “I went to [the Malian capital] Bamako in my youth to find some work and help my family. Even if it’s complicated or dangerous to travel to the north now, it’s still my homeland and always will be. I have a house there. It’s my culture and my heritage. This is my region and it felt right to name this album after it. It’s pure Songhoy music.”
With Binga, Touré has made sure those roots show proud and strong.
“I wanted to put them in the forefront, to go back to something more natural and closer to the band on stage, to show how we really are. It was important to me. This isn’t an influence, it’s my natural style.”
With his bass player having moved to the US, it was a stripped-down combo of guitar, ngoni, calabash and other percussion that entered the studio to record Binga. The result captures the lean tautness of the sound. The only addition on a few tracks was harmonica, but that wasn’t “so far from the traditional fiddle sound we used to have on some albums, it accompanies the music in the very same way.”
That paring-back to the bare bones gave the musicians space to create what Touré calls “a communion between the instruments.” As always, the groove is the foundation, the circling, mesmerising riffs of Touré’s guitar and the heartbeat rhythm of the calabash. It’s relentless, mesmerising, and the voice and the commentary of the ngoni revolve around it. This is music without embellishment, the very essence of Songhoy.
“Our music naturally has very few solos,” Touré explains. “I think they’re a very western thing. I've never played very long ones and I feel more like a creator of songs than a guitarist singer. The ngoni is also reserved here, compared to previous albums. Each one accompanies the others, simply.”
The result is stark, graceful, even austere at times. But that only emphasises its power. Instru-mental flourishes appear, but they’re only brief, sharp flashes, like the conversation between guitar and ngoni at the end of “Sambalama.” The focus is kept squarely on the power of the songs – all sung in Sonhgoy, unlike previous albums.
Touré has never shied away from describing the realities of life in his homeland. Mali, he says, has gone from “one coup d'état to another, from one rebellion to another, from one inter-ethnic massacre to another, nothing has changed, and I would even say that everything has worsened in recent years. Then the health and school systems are very, very behind, nothing is being done…” The darkness swirls, impossible to ignore. He’s written about the situation before, on Albala and Gandadiko, but little has changed.
““Sambamila” has this kind of mood, because I feel so sad that I’m still not able to go to my village in full security. And “Fondo” covers something I sing about in all my albums, the immigration of the youth for what they think to be a better life, whether it's to another country, or simply to the capital. In “Atahar,” I sing about the malfunctioning of the Malian school system, which between repeated strikes and closures due to COVID is in a lamentable state. I didn’t have a chance to go to school as a child and it makes me sad that today, 40 years later, the Malian authorities still neglect our children, our only wealth and hope for the future.”
Touré’s words are as lean and muscular as his music on Binga. There’s the force of the heart behind them. A communion, not just of instruments, but also voices, the power of the Songhoy soul. When he looks at the area where he grew up, he doesn’t see anything bucolic, only a vision of the poverty that remains.
“In many villages they still live like in the old days, sometimes walking kilometres to get a single bucket of water, there are a lot living without electricity,” he points out. “I don't wish them a simpler life, but on the contrary, more development and future prospects for their children.”
Yet the album is far from shadowed and sorrowful. “Sambalama” is a joyful statement of standing tall and hoping for better days to come while on “Kola Cissé” Touré offers a praise song the memory of the late head of the Malian Football Federation. Two old Songhoy pieces bookend the disc, “Tamala” and “Terey Kongo,” and both are filled with light, celebrating the history of the Songhoy people.
Binga is the music of a realist. It’s a cry from the soul, but even more, an affirmation of a nation’s history, and Samba Touré’s pride in it. For him, it could never be anything else.
“I never left my roots. How could I even do that? I’m a Songhoy man and a Malian citizen first. I deeply love my country and its culture; they are all the parts of who I am.”