MANSA AMERICA
Reviews

Fula Flute
Mansa America
Completely Nuts Records, 2008

Fula Flute is a New York-based band comprising some of the most extraordinary West African musicians in the US with a few Americans, and the guiding hand of one ambitious Canadian, Sylvain Leroux. One route of describing this band’s complex genesis involves Leroux’s pursuit of the tambin, the “Fula flute” itself. The tambin produces a wild, overblown sound, half vocalization half African free jazz meets Jethro Tull, and Leroux is no slouch at the highly specialized skill required to play it. As it happens he shares the stage here with a bona fide tambin master, Bailo Bah of Guinea, who has lived in New York City for some years now.

Another way to tell this band’s story has to do with the remarkable Mande musicians in the lineup—Abdoulaye Diabate on vocal, Yacouba Sissoko on kora, and Famoro Dioubate on balafon. They are part of a New York cadre of musicians who practice jeliya—the griot’s art of praise history and musical entertainment—within the city’s ever growing Mande community. These deeply traditional musicians are, simply put, masters with virtuoso technical skills and burgeoning musicianship to spare. The coalescence of Fulani aesthetics and Mande repertoire has long been a phenomenon in Guinea, but it is safe to say that no band in Conakry sounds quite like Fula Flute.

Many of these twelve songs come from the vast and venerable Mande repertoire. Typically the balafon, one or both of the two flutes and strong bass lines from American Peter Fand hold down the ostinatos while Diabate and sometimes Bah sing, and various instruments take free flying solos. A number of songs feature a male backing chorus, an interesting departure from the female backing vocals in most Mande pop music. The lilting “Lele” features Sissoko’s kora, while the classic “Tara” plays out as a balafon and flute instrumental. The pulsing “Salya” features the two flutes, and here as elsewhere, Bailo Bah’s near-feral soloing is enough to send chills down your spine.

The opening track is a praise song to Barack Obama, to whom this CD is dedicated, hence the title Mansa (king) America. It’s an extravaganza that unfolds in two sections with Diabate handling the praise magnificently in the stately opening section, and Bah singing in his high, reedy tenor during the racing finale. For innovation, the standout track has to be “Fouta Canada,” a polyrhythmic 12/8 groove created by Leroux and Diabate and incorporating richly melodic brass work.

Contributed by: Banning Eyre for www.afropop.org

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