Few bands exude this kind of confidence and panache...
Chris Moss 2007
The first track of this sublime album is over 12 minutes long. Funeral dirge, dancehall song and incantation, it’s an anthem for a Mali still at odds with itself more than a decade after Independence, pulled by all kinds of emotion but ultimately full of hope. Salif Keita’s vocals measure out their joy out in controlled metres, straining and soaring when required but pausing at the close of an idea and, quietly, always moving the song forward. This track, ‘'Djandjon'’, has a beguiling, insistent rhythm, and you think it could have gone on for hours more – but by the end the circle is complete and you know that all the time the musicians had an end in sight.
The Bamako-based Ambassadeurs du Motel began to really make things happen in 1973 when the chief of the Malian police took over as manager and persuaded Salif Keita, then star of the Rail Band, to come on in and join the party. Keita has said that whereas with the Rail Band, he interpreted songs from Malian folklore played on modern instruments, the Ambassadeurs gave him space to perform traditional music as well as jazz, Latin-American and European forms. For audiences at the time, it was a revelation. Even now, post-Festival in the Desert and Damon Albarn’s holidays in the region, this pioneering sound still comes over as raw, freshly conceived and deeply committed. Part of this is thanks to the tapes that were used, and the rough edges and dreamy reverb (some of the synths are a bit too dreamy). But the passion and commitment would shine through even if this were remastered for the iPod generation.
On ‘'Djougouya'’ you hear the jazz urges, as well as a 70s wash of urban cool – Shaft in Timbuktu – which gives way to a gorgeous funk pop song with Keita talking to the sax. ‘'Bara Willie'’ has a reggae beat and spacey dub treatment. ‘'Wassalon Foli'’ takes you to a basement dive bar swirling with smoke and swaying bodies. No song comes in at under six minutes and one, ‘'Kibaru'’, indulges us in an epic 20 minutes – it was originally performed at the legendary ‘battle of the bands’ concert held in Bamako in 1974, when Les Ambassadeurs took on the Rail Band, then fronted by Mory Kanté. But what stands out is Les Ambassadeurs’ skill at taking on jazz, funk, ethnic rhythms and even Mexican horns, and working them into a stylish, seamless signature sound.
Few bands exude this kind of confidence and panache, and this gorgeous reissue is a reminder that before the subsections at the record store, African music was just fantastic music – outward-looking and inwardly assured.