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"N'Ka Willy" from Electro Bamako
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Electro Bamako
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Mamani Keita & Marc Minelli, Electro Bamako, (Palm Pictures)

If Techno was Played with Brushes and Balafon…

Electro-Bamako Ping Pongs Mali and France

Malian music is gaining worldwide prominence. Bonnie Raitt’s latest CD features Habib Koite. Damon Albarn of Blur put out Mali Music (Astralwerks) after going to Mali for Oxfam. Issa Bagayogo’s recent Six Degrees release bridged the gap between dance and world. Robert Plant recently slept in a camel skin tent in the Sahara at the Festival in the Desert and sang “Whole Lotta Love” to a crowd of nomads. Plant’s guitarist Justin Adams released his Mali-inspired debut Desert Road and produced Tuareg band Tinariwen’s Radio Tisdas Sessions (both on World Village). And the list goes on.

This cross-cultural fascination with Mali goes one step further on Electro-Bamako, by Mamani Keita and Marc Minelli. The CD, to be released in the U.S. on Palm Pictures on May 6, 2003, uses techniques from Techno, but with an entirely different feel and instrumentation. The project emerged when Marc Antoine Moreau, the Paris-based manager of Amadou and Mariam, suggested that Minelli integrate his computer adventures with the incredible voice of a former backing singer for Salif Keita.

“Mainly this is the record of a music fan who’s received beautiful Malian songs for Christmas as gifts to build around,” explains Minelli. “We didn’t meet much with Mamani at the beginning. It was more like a ‘ping pong’ relationship with tapes: gimme your songs and I’ll bring it back with arrangements. Fortunately, though she was very surprised when she listened the first time, she was interested, and I think she liked it very much because it was an alternative to the music she was into for years, but also it respected every detail of it.

Being a singer himself and being steeped in Pop and British Rock, Minelli composed and arranged the album in that vein. “I wanted to do an ‘Electro’ Pop Rock record sung by a Malian and using sounds and enthusiasm of Jazz,” explains Minelli. “These songs are structured the way Beatles’ songs were: intro, first verse, chorus, 2nd verse, bridge, et cetera.”

Minelli conducted the initial production on his computer at home. “I started with these guitar and voice tapes, cut and looped, pasted and mixed, and felt with everything I could recycle from my own collection of sounds,” he says. “Recycle is the important word for me because I think we’ve listened to so many things now, it’s almost impossible to pretend you’re still creating in music.”

“I often record things on TV or radio,” explains Minelli. “The voice on ‘N’ka Willy’ comes from a movie, but I don’t remember or care which one. It’s just a small sound that sounds ‘normal’ and familiar in a very arranged piece of music. It doesn’t have to make sense. I just like it’s sound and color. It’s like the idea of contrasts and opposites in painting. That girl sounds angry; she’s in opposition with Mamani’s voice that sounds so sweet.”

“Words give a swing to the music. It’s like a natural rap,” he continues. “There’s life outside of the studio and I don’t forget it when I work.”

Minelli’s first exposure to African music was hearing Fela and King Sunny Ade in Paris in the early 1980s. But he credits a more direct experience in Morocco—where he played “wah wah” style guitar with Gnawas in Morocco—with opening is ears to “something else.

Collaboration across cultures was pretty smooth on Electro-Bamako with each artist playing distinct roles. “But there was a different way of counting,” Minelli recalls. “I was hearing the voice starting on the kick not on snare drum. So we had tough moments with that, re-doing and re-doing, and she was counting three when I counted four. But I insisted because I thought, ‘Well, there are no songs in Electro music, so it’s gonna make a difference!’”

Minelli had not been to Africa until after the CD was completed. Though he felt Keita’s voice guided him in the right direction, he had always feared “a possible betrayal somewhere.” His worries were allayed when he made it to Bamako and listened to the CD on the rooftop at Amadou and Mariam’s house. Minelli recalls, “Sound and vision came together and everyone felt this record was perfect in Africa too.”