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07/25/2017
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West African stars Orchestra Baobob and Oumou Sangaré head in opposite directions on their first albums in years

Two of West Africa's most storied acts put out terrific albums this spring: Senegal's Orchestra Baobab dropped Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng (World Circuit), its first new recording in nearly a decade, while powerful Malian singer Oumou Sangaré released Mogoya (No Format), her first in eight years. The former are one of world music's most reliable traditional ensembles, and Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng continues their embrace and reconsideration of their own rich past; the latter has made a decisive shift toward a more modern sound while retaining her music's roots in the Wassoulou region.

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Formed in 1970, Baobab were one of the first African bands to adapt Cuban music—they reclaimed a style that had evolved from African sources in the first place and fused it with traditional Mande sounds. They broke up in 1987, but a reissue of vintage material led to a reunion in 2001, and they've remained active ever since (albeit at a leisurely pace). Sadly, the new album is missing some key personnel: brilliant guitarist Barthelemy Attisso couldn't participate because he has a career as an attorney in his native Togo, and devastatingly soulful singer Ndiouga Dieng, after whom the new record is named, died in November 2016. Baobab have also tinkered with their sound by adding new elements, which is often a positive thing—especially the addition of kora player Abdouleye Cissoko, who brings a welcome rusticity, and the addition of several horns to the excellent tenor saxophone of Issa Cissoko.

The group have also chosen to revisit some older tunes, and one can't help but wonder if it's a sign of a diminished commitment to making new music. Nonetheless, their remake of the 70s track "Sey" (which features an electric, deeply affecting guest appearance by its original singer, Thione Seck, who left the band in 1979) is a highlight of the album, as you can hear below. And even if Baobab becomes a nostalgia act, they'll remain a welcome listen for me.

Sangaré has generally embraced a traditional sound, even when her lyrics boldly challenge patriarchal mores, but she's made a thrilling change on Mogoya (and in keeping with that transformation, the release is on daring French label No Format, not on World Circuit, which handled her previous internationally distributed records). Sangaré made the album in Stockholm with French production crew A.L.B.E.R.T., whose members have previously worked with pop artists such as Beck, Air, and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Normally I'd get nervous reading a sentence like that, but Mogoya is one of the best things she's ever done. Sangaré's rich, authoritative voice has always required very little support to convey its power, and the producers seem to understand that—they've simply added subtle electronic textures and enhanced some of the rhythms.

Sangaré grew up in Bamako, Mali's urban capital, but her music has always drawn on the hunter songs of Wassoulou, where female voices sing call-and-response melodies over a rustic blend of kora, n'goni, and hand percussion. Over the years Sangaré has added electric bass and electric guitar, but those traditional instruments have remained the core of her sound—and they dominate on Mogoya as well. Bolder has been her subject matter, which has increasingly challenged traditional practices such as polygamy, genital mutilation, and the suppression of female sensuality.

When the producers foreground the beat in one of Sangaré's songs, as they do on the single "Yere Faga," they enlarge it not by adding machine-made rhythms but instead by recruiting the architect of Afrobeat's telltale groove, drummer Tony Allen. Below you can hear Sangaré's searing "Djoukourou," which includes a fiery guitar solo that can't upstage her powerhouse singing or the track's infectious groove.