Positioned just off-center in a white ankle-length robe, Sidi Touré was the visual and vocal focus of his band’s performance Tuesday evening at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage. But the quintet’s music seemed to take many of its cues from the playing of Ousmane “Papou” Dagnon, a master of the n’goni.
The instrument, widely considered the ancestor of the banjo, has a high-pitched percussive tone that suggests a 12-string guitar and, sometimes, a jazzy harpsichord. The n’goni can produce rapid flurries of notes, and its presence may explain why “Toubalbero,” Touré’s new album, is often quicker-paced than his earlier work. The recording is the musician’s first in years to employ plugged-in guitars, played by Touré and lead guitarist Djadje Traore. But Dagnon provides many of the most electric moments.
The Bamako-based Touré is originally from Gao, in the ethnically Songhai region of northern Mali. This was the home of the late Ali Farka Touré (no relation) and is near the turf of such groups as Tinariwen. The loping, slippery mode of those performers is often tagged “desert blues,” and can be heard in Sidi Touré’s music. (His first U.S. album, released in 2011, was titled “Sahel Folk.”) But most of “Toubalbero’s” songs, which dominated the set list, have the ringing timbres and brisk, intricate motifs of music from such nearby countries as Senegal and Nigeria. Touré has shaken off the desert sand.
Culturally, however, Touré’s recent material remains grounded in his home region. The new album’s title song is named for the traditional drum used in Gao to summon people to assemble. “Hendjero Moulaye” adapts a cautionary tale about a man who celebrated his success as a fisherman before he’d caught anything. “BK,” in which Touré’s tenor soared from growl to birdlike trills atop call-and-response vocals, is an homage to a Songhai music pioneer. The two guitars and n’goni pulsed and chattered hypnotically during “Tchirey,” which called on a Songhai thunder god in a style derived from traditional trance music (while forgoing the dub-inspired echo effects of the recorded version).
Mali and its internationally celebrated music were disrupted by Islamic zealots’ partial takeover of the country in 2012. While that conflict has inspired many doleful songs from the region, Touré’s new tunes are energetic and overwhelmingly joyous. The group closed its too-short hour-long set with “Heyyeya,” whose singalong chorus is derived from Songhai wedding-celebration chant.
Midway through the number, which was driven by the show’s heaviest drumbeats, Touré and the three other string players crouched together as they churned a cyclical riff. It was a theatrical gesture, but at that ecstatic moment it didn’t feel at all forced.