Picture a tree-lined street on a sunny day, there’s a light breeze blowing and you’re walking without any rush. Your soundtrack might as well be the Malian trio SMOD. On their self-titled US debut, politically-conscious lyrics find their way into slow paced grooves that seem to tell you to cool down, enjoy the day and maybe nod your head lazily with the percussion. When they sing about “problèmes dans ma tête” (problems in my head) it’s almost hard to believe them, but could you expect anything different from a group produced by the often sanguine Manu Chao?
Sam, Ousco and Dronsky have been rapping together since 2000, when they created SMOD. Back then, their heads were turned towards hip hop, much like a big part of Bamako and the whole country’s youth. Chao first became involved with them while producing the groundbreaking record “Dimanche à Bamako”, by Sam’s parents, the accomplished duo Amadou and Mariam. By observing their international success, the trio learned how Mali’s musical heritage could catapult their music farther away. So they traced a similar path through pop, rock and the bluesy Malian tradition making sure to add hip hop to the formula.
Several elements on SMOD echo Manu Chao’s former works, like the noises he samples to bring more fun into the record. The production plays no small part here, where the songs recorded live sound as polished as they can. Over the predominating acoustic guitar lines, the three voices in SMOD come together in soothing harmonies, like African tradition often demands. The rapping is mostly laid back, though, made to fit the album’s chilled atmosphere. And even when the lyrics get serious — like on the politically charged “Les Dirigeants Africains” — you’d have a hard time guessing it by the joyful tone of the instruments and the straightforward lyrics which are sung in French and Bambara.
The positive nature of the songs does have its downfalls. Sometimes the songs start feeling too much like lullabies (hear “Reviens Djarabi”). However, the trio is quick to wake you up with livelier tracks such as “Dakan” immediately after. This contrast repeats itself and it’s especially felt when the listener is pulled out from a state of a West African trance in “Les jeunes filles du Maliba” only to fall into the loud electric guitars punctuated by aggressive rapping of “J’ai Pas Peur du Micro” ( “I’m not afraid of the microphone”), with French rapper Keny Arkana.
SMOD is a step forward in Mali’s rich history of dialoging with western rhythms, but the possibilities of hip hop are wide and there’s still a lot more to explore. Although not quite as original and interesting as Amadou and Mariam (comparison is inevitable, just give “Dimanche à Bamako” a listen), who ventured into electro and incorporated elements like auto tune into their folk-ish sound, SMOD is simple and so easy on those ears to those unfamiliar with Malian music that it has the potential of firing up the interest of a younger western audience. Judging from this record, that seems to be their exact intention.