No one recorded the 17th-century West African music that existed before slave traders took many of the region's musicians to the Western Hemisphere. But we can deduce what that music might have sounded like by searching for a source so elemental that it contains the seeds of everything that followed. If Wynton Marsalis, Youssou N'Dour, Kanye West, Gilberto Gil, Jimmy Cliff and King Sunny Ade represent the elaboration and diversification of that tradition, a sound very close to the source can be heard in Mali's Boubacar Traore and Ali Farka Toure and in the Mississippi hill country's R.L. Burnside and Fred McDowell.
Though separated by language and an ocean, these four singer-guitarists sound so much alike that they must be reaching back to music very close to the branching point -- and that reach lends them a power that can be spellbinding. Traore, a '60s pop star who disappeared only to reemerge in 1992, comes from western Mali, which gives his music a slightly different cast -- lighter, more lilting, less riff dependent -- than Toure, who comes from the north. And, of course, Traore differs from Burnside and McDowell, by singing in Bambara and French, by singing about community concerns more than individual desires and by playing his acoustic guitar in the manner of the 21-string West African harp, the kora. Nonetheless, the similarities overwhelm the differences.
Traore's new album, "Kongo Magni," is his first recording of new material in six years. French harmonica player Vincent Bucher reinforces Traore's link to the blues on four tracks, and Madagascar accordion virtuoso Regis Gizavo lends a pan-African feel to the universal brotherhood song "Kanou." But for the most part, Traore's nasal baritone and filigreed guitar picking are supported by a Malian band playing hand percussion, calabash gourd, balafon (an African marimba) and kamele ngoni (a six-string harp). Rarely changing chords, the music commands attention by its push-pull polyrhythms, subtle shifts in tonality and the implacable authority of Traore's voice, whether he's singing about war on the title track or romantic jealousy on "Djonkana."
-- Geoffrey Himes
Appearing Tuesday at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage.