Afel Bocoum, a celebrated Niafunké, Mali-born and-based singer/songwriter and guitarist is among the last of a breakthrough generation of African artists, who have mixed their traditional music with the new sounds that arrived from all over the world during the 20th and 21st centuries. Despite the accolades he has earned throughout his lengthy career, music hasn’t been an easy dream for him: Most aspiring musicians face stiff parental and societal opposition; however for Bocoum, the parental opposition he faced was deeply perplexing, given the fact that this father Abakina Ousmane Bocoum, a.k.a. Kodda was one of the most famous and beloved njarka players of the 20th century.
But Bocoum wasn’t deterred. Music was omnipresent: it was in the holey or spirit dances of Songhoy, in the melodies of the Fulani flue, in the gumbé drum sessions with their wild moonlit dancing, in the stories and poetry of the griots and in the hymns of the local Protestant Mission. For a young Bocoum, music was more than just entertainment; it taught people about life and the right way to live it. It guaranteed social cohesion and the strength of the collective conscience, especially in a society that was at the time, largely illiterate and had no access to modern media. “There was no radio at the time, no TV, nothing. It was incredible,” Bocoum remembers. “When you saw someone with a guitar, you followed him everywhere.”
As a teenager, the legendary Ali Farka Touré exerted a powerful hold on the young Bocoum. When Bocoum first met Touré in the late 1960s, he was a barely a teenager and Touré was already considered one of the region’s most famous and greatest sons. Bocoum hung out with Touré as much as he could, eventually becoming a member of Asco, Touré’s backing band. And as a member of of Asco, Bocoum toured with the legendary singer/songwriter and guitarist throughout the 80s and 90s, appearing on Touré’s 1992 effort, The Source.
The idea of releasing his own music arose from a gentle curiosity, rather than any self-serving ambition or desire to upstage his beloved mentor. “Everybody seemed to be releasing albums all around me, so it was like, ‘why not?’” Bocoum says in press notes. Tourè hooked his mentee up with Nick Gold, artistic director of World Circuit, which led to Bocoum’s 1999 full-length debut, Alkibar (The Messengers), an effort that established Bocoum as an international star in his own right.
As a result of Alkibar‘s success, Bocoum was invited to work with Blur and Gorillaz frontman and creative mastermind Damon Albarn and Toumani Diabaté on the 2002 album Mali Music. From there, he became a regular contributor on the Africa Express compilation series, collaborating with a who’s who list of internationally acclaimed artists, including Béla Fleck, Habib Koité, Tarit Ensemble, Oliver Mutukudzi and others. “You have to collaborate, otherwise you’ll get nowhere in today’s world,” Bocoum says of his work with those artists. “All those collaborations were positive.”
Bocoum’s latest album, the Damon Albarn and Nick Gold produced-Lindé was officially released today through World Circuit Records. Deriving its name from a wild expanse near his hometown, the album which was recorded in Mail’s capital city of Bamako, reportedly finds the celebrated Malian singer/songwriter and guitarist drawing from the timeless sounds of the Niger River bend with a variety of styles across the globe, through collaborations with a diverse and eclectic array of artists including eminent Malian artists like Madou Kouyaté, the late Hama Sankaré and Madou Sidiki, along with the recently departed, legendary Afrobeat pioneer and Fela Kuti collaborator Tony Allen, Bob Marley and Skatalites collaborator Vin Gordon (trombone) and Joan as Police Woman creative mastermind Joan Wasser on violin.
Throughout the album’s material, you’ll hear traditional African folk instruments like ngoni, njurkele, kora and calabash with guitars, percussion, horns and call-and-response vocals, and the end result is something timeless and mystical, yet modern. At its core, the material possesses a deep and abiding message: in the face of an uncertain and turbulent world and a homeland struggling with jihad, poverty and tribal warfare, the album’s material urges the listener to have hope and to seek solidarity and unity. “We have to meet each other, talk to each other, look each other in the eye and tell the truth,” Bocoum says. “If we’re not united, I can see no solution. Our social security is music. That’s all we’ve got left. People love music, so we have to make use of that fact.”
So far I’ve written about two of Lindé‘s previously released, the breezy, uplifting and mischievous “Avion,” which featured the shimmering guitar work of Mamadou Kelly, Oumar Konaté and Lamine Soumano paired with call-and-response vocals and propulsive polyrhythm and the Pan African of “Bombolo Lindo,” which featured Skatalites’ Vin Gordon (trumpet), Songhoy Blues‘ Garba Touré (guitar) and Toumani Diabaté’s brother Madou Diabaté (kora) on a track that warned young Africans against thinking that heading to Europe would mean instant success or recognition for them and their talents.
The album’s third and latest single “Djougal” begins with a slow-burning and contemplative intro before a sudden tempo change about 80 seconds in with the song taking on a decided shuffling Afro pop feel. And it’s all centered around shimmering and dexterous guitar work, call-and-response vocals and the late Tony Allen holding the song together with a deft rhythmic touch.. Much like the previously released singles, “Djougal” is a seamless synthesis of the timeless with the modern — and it’s done in a way that’s slick yet thoughtful, mischievous yet earnest, modern yet timeless.