For most American listeners, the steaming and billowy sounds of Malian desert blues are most familiar via the work of the Ry Cooder-championed guitarist, the late and magnificent Ali Farka Touré. Sidi Touré (no relation), a fellow countryman from the city of Gao (which can get as hot as 119 degrees Fahrenheit), plays guitar at the crossroads of American blues and Malian folk music, similarly to Ali Farka, but with an entirely different aura, despite the initial similarities. His second LP, Koïma, released via Thrill Jockey, is a brilliant evocation of the sublimated mirage spirits of the West African deserts.
Malian guitar style is immediately recognizable. Characterized by ornate slides and pull-offs, grounded via slightly altered blues scales, the twisting and swirling guitar lines (usually two at a time) shift imperceptibly like desert sands. In the work of both Tourés, the active yet reclined guitar is complemented by the longing drones of a sakou, a traditional Malian violin, and simultaneously sparse and complex clicking percussion. But that’s where the similarities end.
Ali Farka’s image is characterized by a pair of sunglasses, a languid cigarette, a beach chair and an electric guitar left precariously on his knee. His raggedly cool aura is reflected in his music: His singing is gravelly, song-structures repetitive in a stoned sort of way with a bright guitar tone that requires shades for both listening and playing. Sidi, on the other hand, appears on Koïma’s cover in tradtional Malian garb, looking something like an acoustic guitar-wielding shaman.
Koïma is a name for a dune in Mali that is supposed to be the gathering place for grave and potent wizards. It’s a fitting title for the record, whose swirling guitars seem capable of conjuring a mystical force at any moment. While repetition is a theme similarly explored by Sidi and Ali Farka, the former’s songs tend to be a little more elaborate in terms of song structures, with intricate and complex polyrhythms bespeaking occult communication between the minimal instrumentation. Sidi’s bluesy voice owes less to the tobacco-and-scotch fueled growl of Tom Waits and more to the impassioned howls of Delta Blues singers, albeit with the pristine quality of a carefully enunciating priest. He’s paired with a female singer who brings out the high end in the mix with a delightfully childlike and mischievous voice.
The guitar work, while exceptional, does seem to lack the unconscious ecstasy of Ali Farka’s languorous musings, which is surely a great part of the West’s fascination with desert blues. However, the songs’ rhythmic and melodic structures are so focused and varied as to make for an unequivocally excellent record that never bores. If you’ve yet to explore this strangely intoxicating genre of music, I would suggest Sidi Touré’s latest album as a perfect starting point: accessible enough for immediate appreciation, yet complex enough for repeat listens. It’s a spiritual experience, transcendence via heat stroke.