Ben ZaboFacebook: www.facebook.com/BenZabo
Much of the Malian music that has been released on European and American labels in the last few years shares one thing: it is mostly down tempo and reflective. The kora majesty of Toumani Diabate, the Songhi blues of the late Ali Farka Toure, the singer-songwriter tropes of Rokia Traore and the dusted, acoustic meditations of Tinariwen (on their most recent album) are a demonstration of this point. Even the later albums of the once exuberant Salif Keita have grown more melancholy and ethereal.
The music of Ben Zabo is a clear break from this quietude. His music is a string of firecrackers igniting on the dance floor of a midnight party. It is a music that has been perfected in the loud, sweaty, open-air clubs that line the outskirts of Bamako, places where the competition to get heard is fierce, and the chances of moving upward and outward are next to none.
When I first came across Ben’s music it seemed unlike any contemporary Malian music that I had heard. Its direct physicality, its polyrhythmic complexity and its raw but focused energy set it apart. But as I dug more into Mali’s musical past, I realized there are antecedents for the music Ben and his band create.
In the 70’s and 80’s, like in much of Africa, musicians in Mali were creating a powerful, and at times edgy musical fusion that brought together traditional rhythms and chants with the urban (and often western) sounds of the fast growing cities. Electric guitars and James Brown motifs stood side by side with age-old storytelling. It was a music made out of a complex dialogue: the village reaching to the city and the city reaching to the village. And while it would be too simplistic to gather all such music under one name, due to Fela Kuti’s pan-continental influence and his coinage of the term, much of this music came to be known as Afro-beat.
In Mali, during that fertile time, artists like Moussa Doumbia, Le Super Djata Band du Mali, Super Biton de Segou, and Sory Bamba and his many groups (especially L’Orchestre Kanaga de Mopti) were articulate, original purveyors of this cutting-edge musical experiment.
Just to satisfy my own curiosity, I once asked Ben Zabo if he had ever listened to Afro-beat and its Malian offshoots. His face lit up and his answer was quick and to the point. “I have listened to too much Afro-beat!” he said, grinning. He went on to acknowledge the deep debt he felt towards the musicians (of all stripes) that have come before him.
On another occasion Ben proudly told me that his Malian “Afro-beat” forbearers Super Biton de Segou and L’Orchestre Kanaga de Mopti, had both incorporated the unique Bwa rhythms from Ben’s own minority ethnic group, the Bo people, into some of their classic songs, even though those artists were from a different ethnic background.
With the release of Ben Zabo’s self-titled album an older tradition is renewed and an uncharted path begins. Mali’s Afro-beat past is fused with the pulse of Bamako in the new millennium and the rarely heard sounds from the Bo musical culture.
This album is the first album ever to be released by a Malian of Bo descent.
Because of this, Ben routinely refers to him and his band as “musical warriors.” In this chaotic and often indifferent world, they are fighting to have their voices heard, their rhythms felt and their cultural legacy recognized. They are funky, charismatic and committed. They are not going to give up easily.
Bwa power has arrived.