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St Germain

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  • Nonesuch, 2015

I should state upfront that I’m not easily impressed by electronic mixes that incorporate samples and performances of African music. It’s too easy to create predictable grooves with ethnic window dressing, an approach that has now become a genre unto itself, much of it contrived and shallow.

By distinct contrast, St Germain has created a provocative collage of sounds that respects traditions—Malian roots music, American blues, and more contemporary electronic music traditions—while making bold moves, like mixing sampled blues vocals by Lightnin’ Hopkins and Robert Burnside into African folkloric textures. One reason these tracks work so well is that composer Ludovic Navarre—a.k.a. St Germain—has been listening to African music since childhood. He’s not geeky or scholarly about it, but his approach is confident and coherent. He considered the music of Nigeria and Ghana before settling on Mali, so there’s a unity and logic to the experimentation here. And of course, Malian music’s historical links to and inherent affinity with blues, jazz, rock and funk is St Germain’s secret weapon, allowing for wonderful resonances among the elements he juxtaposes and blends.

It’s not like this musical territory hasn’t already been explored in other ways by the likes of Ry Cooder, Taj Mahal, Markus James and others. But St Germain brings the techniques and sensibilities of a 21st century electronic composer to the game. He began releasing EPs in 1993, and his debut album, Boulevard (1995), sold over one million copies. There have been a lot of singles, remixes, EPs, and performances since then, but this is just his fourth full album, and it’s a very substantial work. The composer has never been to Africa, but he’s done his homework, and he’s reached out to the community of Malian musicians who live in and pass through Paris. So we get contributions from Wassoulou music diva Nahawa Doumbia, the spectacular electric guitarist and ngoni player, Guimba Kouyate, and Zoumana Tereta, a singer and master of the one-stringed Malian horse-hair fiddle, among others.

Each of these eight tracks is different, and the evolution of sounds never disappoints. The opener, “Real Blues,” simmers brightly from the first note, and Lightnin’ Hopkins’ vocal lays out nicely amid a bed of riffing of ngoni, kora and electric guitar. “Sitting Here” has a cool jazz vibe reminiscent of Mamani Keita’s electro-roots releases. But here we get Nahawa Doumbia’s voice, always deep and searing and now craggy with years—quite awesome, especially when shadowed by Guimba Kouyate’s fleet guitar work.

“Hanky Panky” is an organic journey that begins with a wash of ride cymbal punctuated by spare piano and electronic sounds. A rocking Malian string groove gradually insinuates itself into the mix. Drums and guitar bolster the groove. Then midway, the mix opens to feature low ngoni, playing fast, almost in the manner of Moroccan Gnawa music. Kouyate enters with an elegant northern Mali guitar break. The soundscape keeps changing, like fast-moving weather, organic and lively, subtly engaging at every moment.

St Germain may be talking to himself by titling one track “How Dare You.” That’s the one where he samples North Mississippi vocals from Robert Burnside and interweaves them with Zoumana Tereta’s earthy Malian voice over music that shifts from a polyrhythmic roots lope to a percolating club groove. How dare you, indeed! But that’s the sort of daring that makes this the most interesting post-modern take on Malian traditional music we’ve heard yet.

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