Subject: I have found a CD that I think you would enjoy
Dense, complex rhythmic textures from the Voltaic peoples
Phil Rogers | Ann Arbor, Michigan | 06/18/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"We are presented with seven different tracks from six different ethnic groups [Siamou, Birifor, Gan, Dagara, Dian, and Lobi] living in the region of Burkina Faso [formerly Upper Volta] and thereabouts, where different types of xylophones are generally the dominant musical instruments. The liner notes are quite good, with 5 pages each in French, and in English translation. The French tend to call any West African xylophone a 'balafon', even though pretty much every ethnic group who uses/possesses them gives them a different name. The term 'Bala' is used further west for the straight frame type - and only among the Mandinka, Malinke and some of the related peoples of Mali, Guinea, the Gambia, and Senegal. A couple of pages into the liner notes the writer corrects this "error" of naming. He then goes on to tell us something about each of the seven ensembles, including the type of xylophone(s) used, as well as the backup instruments [usually some type or assortment of small drum(s) and a piece of metal to clang]. Note that some of the xylophonists wear wrist rattles.From the photographs (each xylophone is pictured at least once, though the photos are small and a couple of times cropped so it's difficult to see anything other than a few keys being beaten) it appears that most if not all of these xylophones are of the curved-frame variety.The recording itself is beautiful - but it's the interlocking rhythm of the melodies will really get to you. This music nowhere contains the long melismatic Islamic-influenced melodies more characteristic of the Mandinka/Malinke orchestras and dance troupes from Senegal, Mali and Guinea. By contrast, among the Voltaic peoples the rhythmic sophistication and virtuosity is particularly endemic, particularly when two xylophones are playing interlocking rhythms and/or melodies one off/through the other. It's quite a tight weave, and generally very, very fast. I can almost guarantee that it's very different than anything you've heard before. Listening to each different piece really does something new to your mind, and dynamically energizes to your body, whether or not you let it move.The last highly touted 'balafon' CDs I listened to ['Guinee Balafon Mandingue', volumes 1-3] were very disappointing in that they showcased the soloist to the extent that the 2nd balafon and the indigenous "orchestra" behind it were almost wholly drowned out. This was a pity, as this pure Mandinka band (one-string fiddle, flute, double reed horn, and big bass hunter's harp or 'bolon') was playing along in extremely beautiful fashion. But you could barely hear it above the close-miked solo balafon, which was overloading those (probably expensive) stereo microphones. There's however none of that sort of problem here. On each of the seven different ensembles you hear absolutely everything, the stereo separation is matchless, and the tone quality is clean and lively. Only on the last cut, the 2nd xylo player beating out the basic rhythm on 2 keys with the end of his sticks is too loud, probably due to the microphone being badly placed, but possibly partly due to his over-enthusiasm. You can still hear everything, but the more subtle leads are a little too far back in the mix. Too bad, as otherwise it's probably the prettiest piece, and reminds me a bit of the style of the 'kadj' xylophones of the Casamance region of southern Senegal, though even here, it's definitely more rhythmically challenging. Otherwise my only criticism is that it seems sometimes the xylophones may have been placed sideways to the microphones/audience rather than lengthwise, so that the stereo potential of each xylophone is diminished. And a couple of times it seems that there are two different stereo setups (one for each of two xylophones) which are then mixed together in a rather unconventional manner which makes it slightly confusing to the listener, though in a abstract sense it's maybe even more interesting/beautiful. These are very minor glitches, if you even want to call them that.But you certainly cannot by any stretch of the imagination criticize the musicians here; their world is open for you to savor, so don't miss out on this one if you can help it! If you're looking for awesome musicality and virtuosity, and rhythms that will get your ears flapping and your hips moving, along with melodies that will jump all over and around you, by all means look no further."