In the past, when the great guitarists of West Africa have made solo albums, they’ve tended to inspire listener complaint along the lines of Frank Zappa’s memorable line: “Shut up ‘n play yer guitar.” Specifically, the prominence of vocalists on these recordings has disappointed expectations that the guitarist would step into the limelight and assume the starring role, rather than that of a glorified accompanist. From the moment Djessou Mory Kanté made his international debut with the album Guitare Sèche (pam, 1997), he laid that complaint to rest. The release is a classic, immortal recording of acoustic Maninka guitar with not a breath of singing. And it never gets old. River Strings updates that formula with a broader, more electric and percussive palette, but the same laser focus on guitar remains: This is some of the most beautiful, stylish and classy guitar playing you’ll hear this year.
Djessou Mory is the younger brother of Kanté Manfila, a giant of Mande guitar who accompanied Salif Keita in Les Ambassadeurs, and later such luminaries of Guinean vocal music as Sékouba Bambino Diabaté. But for Djessou Mory, instrumental music is the thing. This session was recorded at Salif Keita’s Studio Moffou in Bamako, Mali, with another guitar giant, Djelimady Tounkara, joining on two tracks. Harouna Samake features on kamelengoni for the track “Harouna,” a standout. “Denya” also nods to more traditional instrumentation, showcasing an uncredited balafon player.
The guitarist announces himself on the opening track, “Coucou.” Above a textural chatter of keyboard, bass and percussion, he soars majestically on electric, by turns pouncing on melodies as a vocalist would, and then skittering off into flights of improvisation. On “Toubaka,” one of two tracks featuring Tounkara, we feel the interchange of two master guitarists, each with devastating technique and a remarkably light touch. Elsewhere, Djessou Mory overdubs parts to create guitar density. A few tracks (notably “Mbalia,” “Senekela” and “Kana Nka Kanu Sa”) reprise the magic of Guitare Sèche with rich layerings of interlocking acoustic guitar parts.
On “Fakoly,” Djessou Mory pulls out all the stops on electric. It’s a brooding, minor-key number, famously interpreted by Kasse Mady Diabaté and other griot stalwarts. Here the virtuoso flourishes flow like water, deepening the song’s trenchant mood. In all, an indispensable title for fans of West African guitar.