The vibrant sounds of Mali are captured and celebrated on Vieux Farka Touré's latest release, Samba. Touré returns with a balanced collection of ten original compositions recorded in front of a small audience in Woodstock, NY for the Woodstock Sessions. The setting draws the best out of this ensemble, giving the musicians a natural confidence that is transferred directly to the record. Most of the songs run over five minutes which allow the band to fully explore and lock down these memorable performances at their own pace. A variety of Malian blues, funk, gospel, and a slice of reggae fill the disc with enthusiasm and purpose.
Leading off with “Bonheur,” Touré and his ensemble settle into a laid back acoustic groove which demonstrates the intrinsic relationship the guitar, ngoni, and calabash share on this record. “Mariam” introduces Touré's electric guitar and vocals on a sweet tribute to his sister and the Peule women of Mali. The track also features Idan Raichel slotting into the mix nicely with a plucked keyboard sound.
The group kicks into high gear on the uptempo “Ba Kaitere.” Electric guitar and voice lock together in harmony with a shuffling rhythm supported by the ever percussive ngoni, electric bass, calabash, shakers, and drum kit. The steady approach by the band results in a rewarding performance that heats up as it progresses.
Vieux Farka Touré is the second-born in his family, something he addresses on the acoustic “Samba Si Kairi,” a song his grandfather would sing that acknowledges the luck and fearlessness bestowed upon the second child in Touré's tradition. This piece inspired the title of the record.
“Homafau Wawa” has a driving gospel feel with call and response vocals over this hard-hitting track that honors the people of Northern Mali who denounced and fought off the occupation of the jihadists who threatened free speech and artistic expression.
Touré and Raichel team up again on the tender “Maya,” a song written for the baby daughter of his friend and manager, Eric Herman. Raichel's keyboards offer a distant, celestial feeling which is countered nicely by plucked ngoni phrases.
“Nature” is a steady blues that warns against the destruction of the environment. Touré takes on the polluters and reminds listeners about the importance of a healthy planet. Yaya Drame adds his spoken vocals to “Reconnaissance,” a laid back track supported by the great guitar, ngoni, and calabash rhythm section that consistently impresses. This understated performance is another shining moment on the record.
Reggae is at the forefront of “Ouaga,” which features some passionate vocals and guitar work from Touré. The album concludes with “Ni Negaba,” a serene acoustic tune that adds the experience of Afel Bocoum on backing vocals.
Samba has an energetic tone which offers an engaging listening experience from start to finish. The musicians and the instrumentation lift each track with a freshness that feels rooted in tradition. Acoustic and electric compositions are well-balanced and showcase the different sides of this talented ensemble. This cohesive collection is a standout in Touré's expansive discography. The press release includes basic information about some of the songs, but the lack of liner notes in the CD is a disappointment. While information can be found online, there is nothing like having it right in front of you in the sleeve. - Alex Brown