Back in the 1970s, Burkina Faso was still called Upper Volta. The name was a leftover from the country's colonial era, when the French ruled it as part of their West African empire. The decade was a time of relative political stability-- the country was ruled by a series of military and civil-military governments, but they were all led by the same man: Lt. Col. SangoulÃ© Lamizana. In the cities of Ouagadougou and Bobo-Dioulasso, a cosmopolitan nightlife had been brewing since the early post-war years, and largely through patronage and foreign connections, a few bands had scraped together the necessary equipment to play a modern repertoire of calypsos, rumbas, highlife tunes, waltzes, and foxtrots. The country's fledgling music industry crystallized in 1974 around two Ouaga-based labels: Volta Discobel and CVD (Club VoltaÃ¯que du Disque).
It's this second label that features most prominently on Bambara Mystic Soul, Analog Africa's first foray into cataloging the little-known music of this landlocked country. Analog Africa founder Samy Ben Redjeb began this project back in 2006 after coming across a few BurkinabÃ© records in Niamey, Niger. He visited Ouagadougou and quickly got in contact with Moussa Ouedraogo, the manager of CVD and brother of the company's founder, Adama Ouedraogo. In addition to extensive interviews conducted with some of the musicians featured on the compilation, the liner notes feature Redjeb's account of his crash-course in musique VoltaÃ¯que, as well as a humorously harrowing account of an argument between the Ouedraogo brothers and Amadou BallakÃ© over how to split royalties from a prospective Analog Africa release.
BallakÃ© is the star of the show here-- six of the disc's 16 tracks feature his booming, nimble vocals-- so the fact that he and the brothers hammered out a deal was essential to getting the compilation together. BallakÃ©, born Amadou TraorÃ© (his stage name comes from a hit song he wrote called "BallakÃ©"), had played in big groups in Mali and Guinea before returning to Ouagadougou, where he became the music scene's most prominent fixture. In his hometown, the recording conditions were a lot rougher than the ones he'd experienced outside the country-- many recordings were made at the national theater and other venues with a two-track Nagra recorder borrowed from the national radio station-- but the rawness and immediacy suits him well. Whether he's being backed by filthy "Sex Machine" guitars on "Oye Ka Bara Kignan" or singing sweetly over a hypnotic, air-filled MandÃ© jazz arrangement, his facility with rhythm is astonishing.
BallakÃ©â€™s international profile makes him an outlier on this compilation-- most of the other artists here have rarely been heard outside their homeland. There's not a single track that disappoints, though. Recording time was a very scarce resource in 1970s Burkina Faso, so bands came with their very best when they got the opportunity, and they were well-honed units from night after night of relentless gigging. Mamo Lagbema's "Zambo-Zambo" is a tightly performed, intensely funky workout with a slippery rhythm, deft horn arrangement and compex, interlocking guitar and bass parts, and the recording has amazing depth. It's hard to believe it was recorded live to two tracks. Clearly, experience with this rudimentary recording set-up paid off.
This is the sort of release where a review could very easily devolve into a simple accounting of the awesome things each track does-- the way the unique piano part on Tidiani Coulibaly's "Sie Koumgolo" bridges a gap between Cuban music and hard funk, for instance-- but that would make for some long reading. Instead, let me say that if you have any interest in West African funk forms at all, this is essential listening. It's also essential reading. The interviews and travelogue are excellent, but just as valuable is the history of modern BurkinabÃ© music contributed by Craig Taylor, owner of the excellent but under-distributed Savannahphone label, the only other Western label to release a compilation of BurkinabÃ© dance bands.
A compilation like this may not really shed a whole lot of light on the country the music comes from as a whole-- these musicians were urbanites, guys who used their talent to forge atypical, middle-class identities. The records they cut couldn't be played in a lot of the villages dotted through the countryside. But the music they made was real. It forged a cultural connection to the wider world from a somewhat isolated society, a country off the most frequently beaten paths. The party came to a crashing end in the 1980s, when a series of coups and short-lived governments put a squeeze on the nightlife in the cities. These recordings from the 1970s survived, though, and now we have them to hear again.