Robert Christgau Reviews Salif Keita's 'Un Autre Blanc'
The Dean of American Rock Critics also takes on albums from Hama Sankare, Gato Preto, and Bombino.
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The self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics," Robert Christgau was one of the pioneers of music criticism as we know it—the music editor of the Village Voice from 1974 to 1985 and its chief music critic for several decades after that. At the Voice he created both the annual Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll and his monthly Consumer Guides. Christgau was one of the first critics to write about hip-hop and the only one to review Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water with one word: "Melodic." He taught at New York University between 1990 and 2016, and has published six books, including his 2015 memoir Going Into the City . A seventh, Is It Still Good to Ya?: Fifty Years of Rock Criticism 1967-2017 , is now available from Duke University Press. Every Friday we run Expert Witness, the weekly version of the Consumer Guide he launched in 2010. To find out more, read his welcome post; for almost five decades of critical reviews, check out his regularly updated website.
Salif Keita: Un Autre Blanc (Believe/Naive) Keita, who turns 70 in August, hasn't released an album since 2010 and may never make another. But his voice remains a startling thing, and this grabbed me the moment he launched a wordless shout through a female chorus half a minute in. Then he kept it up for an hour—warm here, intense there, surprisingly mellow for his age whether gruff or sweet. Beyond the ongoing miracle that is Youssou N'Dour, I haven't heard a West African vocal showcase to compare since Keita's own 1999 album Papa, and this is better. "Were Were" is designed to grab you as it did me, and two other standouts feature guests—Angelique Kidjo adding sugar to "Itarafo," where Parisian rapper MHD also takes a verse, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo doing what comes with practice practice practice on the blatantly AutoTuned "Ngamale." But that ain't all—not a track falters. So what got him going? Although a title that translates "another white" indicates that he's speaking out for his fellow albinos, still oppressed as freaks or worse in many African cultures, the lyrics his label sent me are standard sincere African humanism. I'm not even sure how many songs are in Bambara and how many in French. But I am sure that relistening in pursuit of this riddle has been no burden. A MINUS
Hama Sankare: Ballébé (Clermont Music) Sankare is a calabash specialist in his fifties who's added crucial percussion to many Malian records without ever taking the lead. Given his deep, precise baritone and conceptual reach, this was probably a loss, although you could also say he waited until he was ready, because his debut collection never falters. The steel guitars of folk-scene veteran Cindy Cashdollar add alien colors that fit right in, but the sure shot is the lead "Middo Wara," remixed to highlight loops and such by electronic wizard David Harrow and then reremixed in a slightly longer, even more striking all-instrumental mix toward the album's end. Despite the package's brief English-language summaries, I do find myself wondering what this manifestly thoughtful, resonantly tender singer is telling Bambara speakers—he sings with such distinction that I'd like a chance to feel the full force of his message. But this is the kind of African record so musically deft that such niceties end up not mattering much. A MINUS
Hama Sankare: Niafunké (Clermont Music) Exclusively Malian in both production and personnel, Sankare's second album bears his subtle stamp without matching the bite or power of his debut. In both sound and trot all the songs seem strictly moralistic and hortatory. True, "Remobe" ("Development starts with agriculture") is more upbeat with a livelier solo than the solemn "Tiega Mali" ("Today Mali suffers—killings, banditry—we are tearing each other apart"). But though I can imagine playing "Tiega Mali" if something like the Bamako Radisson Blu attack happened again, as I hope against hope it never does, the likes of "Remobe," fine and even fun though they are, has less apparent use value at this distance. B PLUS
Gato Preto: Tempo (Unique) Mozambican frontwoman meets Ghanaian DJ in Düsseldorf, where they they concoct danceable, Latin-sounding pan-African protest music whose politics will hit Anglophones hardest with the album's very first words: "La luta continua" ("Feitiço," "Dia D") ***
Bombino: Deran (Partisan) I'm sorry for his sake that Nonesuch dropped the most crossed-over desert guitarist, but glad for ours that he's put aside reggae feel-good and brought what he knows best back home ("Deran Deran Alkheir," "Tehigren") ***