Issa Bagayogo is one of the great, if tongue-twisting, names in world music. In fact, even in his homeland of Mali, they rarely use his last name; he’s usually just called “Techno Issa.” Issa topped the charts in 2002 with his groundbreaking Timbuktu, an album that spawned a host of imitators hoping to match his compelling blend of Malian roots music and Western dance technology. But no one’s been able to pull it off as convincingly and as elegantly as Issa has. Now he’s back to show how it’s done. Tassoumakan (meaning "Voice of Fire") is Issa’s third full-length CD for Six Degrees, and represents the maturing of an artist who has found a way to honor his country’s great musical traditions while creating a truly global, modern sound.
Since the music of Mali is the source of much of the world’s popular music (the blues, R&B, soul, rock, funk, hip-hop), Issa Bagayogo’s recordings are like an introduction to a great-grandparent you didn’t know was still alive. Working with the French producer/keyboardist Yves Wernert, Bagayogo shows that the musical traditions of Mali are perhaps stronger now than ever before, building on the rhythms and the spirit of Manding emperors and Wassoulou hunters of a millennium ago, and evolving into something contemporary and relevant for listeners whether they’re in Timbuktu or Toledo.
The world music field is crowded with singers trying to blend their native traditions with Western pop. But Issa Bagayogo stands apart from the crowd. For one thing, his recordings are made in Bamako, Mali’s capital city, rather than one of the Afro-pop hit factories in Paris or London. Yves Wernert’s studio was set up in Mali in the early 1990s with the goal of allowing the musicians there to create their own brand of new music, and Bagayogo has done just that. His band includes some of Mali’s top guitarists, like Karamokou Diabate and Mama Sissoko, and the result is an organic mix of West African and Western pop. For another, no one else sounds quite like him – though many have tried. His voice is not flashy, and at times it even seems to blend into the instrumental texture. But it is a subtly insistent voice, dusky and cool. And like his earlier records, Tassoumakan is brilliantly but transparently produced. It doesn’t have the slick, glossy sheen that threatens to make so much of the world’s pop music sound the same. This album has a gritty, organic feel, even while at its most electronic. There’s no sense of something Western being imposed on a native tradition.
Issa stakes out his musical territory right away, with the first two songs on Tassoumakan. “Ciew Mawele,” is a kind of West African talking blues, set to a loping Malian rhythm, and featuring the n’goni, a traditional lute that Bagayogo has played since he was a boy. The song also employs some of the most understated programming and production ever committed to a so-called Afro-pop disc: it sounds completely acoustic. “Diama Don,” on the other hand, is an example of the slinky Malian funk that Bagayogo does so well. With its synthesizers and sequenced percussion, it has a much more contemporary, dance-oriented sound. And yet the rhythms continually evoke the age-old movement of men and beasts across the savannahs of West Africa. This is the magic of Issa Bagayogo’s music, this elusive connection between the rhythms of ancient Mali and modern dance music. As the Montreal Gazette put it, “the Malian musician, firm in his allegiance to the ancestors, is also a child of today; his musical solution to the dichotomy is a picture of what Africa itself must do – incorporate what fits and make it your own.”
Blurring the line between old and new is something that Bagayogo has been doing since his first album, Sya, in 1998. He uses the classic combination of a lone male voice and a small female chorus, in a call-and-response pattern; and in the tradition of Malian singers, who have always addressed social concerns, he often breaks into a kind of speech-song that sounds like a distant ancestor of rap. His lyrics, too, bridge old and new. Traditional concerns like ethnic and cultural pride are side by side with songs about AIDS and drug use. Bagayogo himself kicked a nearly decade-long drug habit before recording Sya. He also continues to use the n’goni – although the 3-string n’goni is considered a spiritual instrument, so Issa uses the 6-string version, which is more suitable for secular music. Throughout Tassoumakan, the n’goni, the flute, and sampled percussion provide an effective foil for the stinging electric guitar and ambient electronics. On “Djigui,” for example, what sounds like a traditional theme morphs imperceptibly into a laid-back Afro-pop ballad. On “Kalan Nege,” the sounds of the n’goni, the balafon (a type of xylophone), and Issa’s rhythmic vocals are set against a repeating keyboard riff… the results sound like Malian dub.
Tassoumakan includes other surprises as well. “Joola,” the album’s closing track, is a chilled-out nocturne with ocean sounds, guitars and female vocals. It has a completely modern sound, despite the traditional call-and-response vocals, the flute breaks, and some typically pointillist African guitar playing by Mama Sissoko. Same thing goes for “Chauffeur,” where an opening full of acoustic guitar, n’goni, female vocals and percussion leads to Issa’s voice with electric guitar and bass. He seems to be suggesting that just because it sounds modern doesn’t mean it has to sound Western or European. Of course, he can sound Western if he wants to. On “Kanou,” one of the album’s most lyrical tracks, the melody floats over some bluesy electric guitar, jazz piano, and several layers of programmed percussion. But even here, the melody itself sounds like it might have been sung on the hunt or in the fields centuries ago.
Tassoumakan may be Bagayogo’s most sophisticated recording yet. And it’s clear that he’s not trying to replace the traditional sounds of Malian music; he’s instead doing a terrific job of extending that tradition into the 21st century. Maybe there are easier ways to become an international music star. Issa might’ve considered dropping the last name, for example, and like Ireland’s Enya or Ethiopia’s Gigi, just gone with a single, easy-to-say moniker. But that wouldn’t be the Issa Bagayogo style: like his name, his music displays his uncompromising pride in the ancient traditions of Mali. Tassoumakan is a convincing blend of modern technology and deeply rooted music that demands (and gets) international attention. So go on, say it. Bagayogo. Get used to it. It’s a name to be reckoned with on the world music scene.