Rating: 4/5Mali’s Mamadou Kelly has long been a collaborator/backing musician for such well-known African stars as Ali Farka Touré and Afel Bocoum. With his new album, Adibar, Kelly is stepping into the spotlight on his own, and aficionados of international music can rejoice. Adibar is a sublime set of tunes played with virtuosity and verve. If this is what Mali’s backing musicians are capable of, one wonders who else might be waiting in the wings.
Kelly is ably supported on this album by calabash master Alpha Ousmane Sankare and Brehima Cisse, expert player of the njarka, a type of west African violin. Rounding out the group is bass player Baba Traoré. Using simple, organic elements, Kelly and his band combine and recombine in numerous surprising ways. Like a fine meal prepared from just a few fresh ingredients, the results are consistently satisfying—far more so than fussier, more cluttered compositions might be (I’m looking at you, new MGMT album).
Album opener “Sehenon Men” lays out the template and sets the tone. Over nimble, fingerpicked acoustic guitar, Kelly’s rich voice casts a spell, supported by rich baritone harmonies. Accents from the fiddle keep things interesting, while the steady clip of the calabash and understated bass ensure that the tune never drags. The rhythms are repetitive and hypnotic, as are the vocals and lyrics, and it serves to cast the listener under something of a spell. At less than four minutes, this one of the shorter tunes of the album, but such is Kelly’s mastery that he barely needs four bars to music to establish his groove.
After this, it’s off to the races. With the template established, Kelly and company set about revising, reinforcing and gently tweaking the basic pattern. “Mahindjene” is an equally trance-inducing composition, without the fiddle this time, while “Goue Ini Bongosse” mines a loping, perky-but-laid-back groove for the full length of its five-plus minutes.
The tempos are generally upbeat, but the slower tunes shine as well. “Fissa Maiga” is a standout, with gently wistful vocals that, according to the brief liner notes, relate a complex story of a woman who loves a man who doesn’t deserve her. Kelly’s acoustic-guitar lead breaks are outstanding here.
If any criticism were to be leveled at this fine collection, it might be that the sonic palette remains almost too consistent throughout. This is not the same as saying, “the songs all sound the same,” but there is a degree of repetitiveness, particularly in the latter half of the album. There is little variation in the basic instrumentation of each song—no lead guitar breaks, no balafon or ngoni or keyboards. Moreover, most of the songs fall into a similar range of tempos, and even the fine vocal works fall into a fairly narrow range of emotional expression. Later tunes like “Bandiagara,” “Donso Foly” and “Salamou” tend to get lost in the listener’s mind—at least in this Anglophone listener’s mind. Doubtless, someone understanding the vocals would be better positioned to respond to each song individually.
Such criticism feels petty, though, when the music on display is of such a consistently high standard. Ultimately, this is one of those records that establishes a tone and then takes it the distance. Kelly manages to straddle the divide between traditional and modern with admirable ease, mixing the instrumentation of both with the sensibility and structures of traditional music and the crystalline production values of today. Nice trick if you can do it.