Andra Kouyate and Seke Chi

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Traditional Inventiveness: Andra Kouyaté and Sèkè Chi Reveal the Innovative Spirit and Polyglot Funk in Mali’s Deepest Roots

In some musically vibrant corners of the world, innovation is the tradition.

So it is in Mali, where the sounds of the Saharan north have mingled with an array of West African traditions in the south. Musicians like Andra Kouyaté show how his homeland’s deep and diverse roots are a constant source of innovative inspiration.

The young scion of a profoundly respected griot family, Kouyaté has invented instruments, transformed Malian standards into fresh new pieces, and taken a contemporary ear to traditional sounds, incorporating pop and reggae with the effortless aplomb that has put Mali on the world’s musical map.

On his first major international release, Andra and his youthful ensemble Sèkè Chi bring a wide-ranging, aesthetically linked set of songs on Saro (Studio Mali; July 31, 2012). Saro features contributions by Amadou and Mariam; by wife and local star Mah Bara Soumano; by older brother Bassekou Kouyaté; by respected Malian singer Ami Sacko; by Harouna Samake the kamele n’goni player for Salif Keita; and by balafon whiz Lassana Diabaté of the Grammy-winning project AfroCubism. The album reveals Andra’s stunning ability to embrace not only all the musical possibilities of Mali’s many traditions, but also a relentless drive to create and re-imagine the music he loves.

“I am always searching and listening and trying to understand more music. If I only played traditional music in the same way, it would simply be too limiting for me. I want to expand. It’s what I was meant to do.”

Kouyaté’s life may seem to straddle two worlds, but in Mali, in his circle of hereditary musicians and oral historians (jeli or griots), it’s all part of one all-embracing creative effort. From a long-standing, very prominent family of griots, Kouyaté has followed in the footsteps of his forbearers (the meaning of the group’s name, Sèkè Chi). Andra performs a beloved cannon of traditional songs and pieces at weddings, social events, and other major secular and religious celebrations in his community.

Andra’s central role in this community is woven throughout his songs and music. “In ‘Lagaré,’ for example, I mention other griots, and I praise them and acknowledge their significance in our culture, in life in general. I thank them for what they do in life and in society,” Kouyaté explains. “The role of the griot is to bring back to life things that are broken between people, between family members, villages, even countries. And to resolve conflicts.”

And like griots before him, he has kept his musical work all in the family. To build Sèkè Chi, he travelled back to one of his ancestral villages and recruited several young relatives to play with him. His wife, a well-loved griot in her own right, adds her nimble, passionate vocals to tracks like “Den Massa Lou.” Songs praise Andra’s father and his elder brother (“Bassekou”) and memorialize his young, bright brother who recently passed away tragically (“Saro”).

“While this is definitely filed under “Traditional,” you will be surprised by the sudden lurch into one-drop reggae on the title track, “Saro.” I have to say it’s by far the best African re-interpretation of reggae I’ve heard. A wonderful balafon skitters in on this one. Glorious stuff.” Muzikfan.com

“It can’t be easy being the ngoni-playing younger brother of the world’s most famous ngoni player, Bassekou Kouyaté. But Andra Kouyaté and his group Sèkè Chi have delivered a debut CD that is confident, distinctive and in no way an imitation of big brother Bassekou’s juggernaut band Ngoni Ba. Well, it is similar in one way—the placement of the ancient fretless Malian lute at the center of spectacular musical action.” Banning Eyre from Afropop.org

Mali ngoni whiz goes deep and diverse on impeccably recorded, exquisitely harmonized neo-trad solo LP. 8 out of 10 stars. SPIN magazine

Andra is pushing tradional Bamana, Puel and Maninka influences into unexplored sonic grounds.  It’s far from traditional griot music but retains its nomadic essence. Okayafrica.com

“Saro” deftly weaves together West African folk, desert blues and touches of reggae. The often joyful musical journey’s illuminated by Kouyaté’s brilliant fretwork.” Pasadena Weekly Review

Kouyate’s music may be the best synthesis of desert and city, traditional and modern that Mali has yet produced. Saro is certainly going to be on my playlists for many weeks to come, as well as a candidate for one of the best albums of 2012. Soundroots.org

(Andra Kouyate) expands the traditional sounds of Malian music, mixing desert blues with influences from West Africa and beyond. Andra and his young band, Sèkè Chi, have put together a remarkable record entitled Saro.  Splintersandcandy.com

Nothing is redundant here, all 60 minutes of this album are utterly enjoyable – every song is a different story. Apart from the skillful band Seke Chi, there is a host of guest musicians like Amadou and Mariam and his wife Mah Bara Soumano among others. ‘Saro’ is the new landmark album straight out of Mali, after last year’s successes of Vieux Farka Toure (‘The Secret’) and Tiwarinen (‘Tassili’). Freegan Kolektiva