In the years since Tinariwen first broke into international prominence, we’ve seen an ever increasing stream of Tuareg (and/or Sahelian and/or Northern Malian- the politics are VERY tricky) guitar groups gain attention, a cohort that includes Tinariwen related projects like Tamikrest and Tarakaft as well wilder styles from artists like Bombino. While these groups are unquestionably different from one another, they all emerge from a similar act of musical fusion, mixing the heavy distortion of rock with the deep sway of more traditional music styles (transferred onto the guitar via amplifier alchemy) to produce a uniquely oceanic sound, a roil of interlocked lines and rhythmic sway that stretch horizon wide.
The music of Super Onze, a popular group from Gao in Mali, takes a slightly different approach. While the bands mentioned above tend to play from within an ever-evolving mixture, Super Onze have retained a single-minded focus on Takamba, one of the definitive rhythms (and dances) of northern and eastern Mali, and a cultural property shared between both the Tuareg and Songhai people of the region. First formed in the late 80’s to provide the musical backing for feasts, weddings, and the like, Super Onze have since evolved into a musical institution in their home city and, eventually, in eastern Mali at large.
In their able hands, Takamba, often a stately, slow-moving style, is transformed into something viciously raw and deadly serious, played with an ear-ripping intensity and an undeniable heaviness. Anchored by the leaden thud of the percussion (Super Onze apparently employ metal pots along with the traditional calabash to create an even more powerful clang), ngonis duel and dogfight in swirling clusters of notes and slashing strums, creating an aural architecture shattered by the raw-voiced power of the vocalist. The distortion you hear on these recordings isn’t produced by pedal, but by amplifiers and pickups pushed to their absolute limits, the harsh squeal of fingers on strings a constant, cutting presence.
It is also, entrancingly, a music of space and pause. Among the most thrilling- and crushingly powerful- moments are built around whiplash silence, as the ngonis suddenly cease playing over the battering Takamba rhythm and turn to follow its dictates, string avalanches catching for a split second over a suddenly hanging percussive impact before tumbling over into precipice.
While Super Onze have toured widely within Mali, and played a handful of international shows, they have yet to receive the attention they so fully deserve. Check out (and BUY!) the two recordings available on their bandcamp, and hope that we hear more from this immensely talented group!