As we move into an age of blogs-turned-record-labels, the NY-based blog Awesome Tapes from Africa is certainly setting a great example. Their second release, Bola‘s Volume 7, is out this month, and it’s a vibrant, living testament to Ghanaian roots music in a digital age. Bola is a young traditional kologo player from a rural, pastoral background. The kologo is a little-known two-stringed instrument with a heavy bass sound from the Frafra of Ghana and Burkina Faso that Bola learned growing up herding livestock in Northeast Ghana. Like the many other ancestors of the banjo that are scattered across West Africa, the kologo has a gourd resonator and a skin head. There’s a whole sub-family of banjo-like bass instruments in West Africa, and the earthy blend of gut strings, gourds, and kick-ass bass lines is nigh-irresistible. For example, check out the amazing recent album from Malian donso n’goni player (and traditional healer/magician) Sibiri Samake. But all connections to the banjo aside, it’s just damn nice that we’re finally getting such a great influx of recordings of West African stringed instruments that aren’t the kora (the ubiquitous and beautiful harp of Mail/Senegal/The Gambia).
On Volume 7, Bola rips on the kologo, no question there, but the album is great also for his tasteful use of drum machine and synthesizer. This isn’t a Shabazz Palaces kind of afro-futurism; for the most part, the digital instruments are there to amplify the beat and loop a kind of trance-like atmosphere around the music. But it works, and it gives the music a sense of lift that takes it beyond what could have easily been an ethnographic recording of sorts. This isn’t new territory, by the way, as Malian musician Issa Bagayogo has been plowing a combination of Euro-electronica and kamélé n’goni into the ground for years now. But Bola’s album is less gimmicky and more authentic. The press release for the album mentions how Bola is helping “evolve” the music, but it sounds more like he’s just having a blast playing around with the materials he has on hand. He made his first kologo out of a plastic tub when he was growing up, and now he’s bumping it with a drum machine. The music sounded great regardless, I’m sure.
Bola’s voice is the second notable part of the music. His clear, strong vocals ride hard over the top of the instrumental picking, roaring and stuttering through the dusty beats. I wish I knew what he was singing about, but that’s kind of the standard complaint for most “world” music anyway. In the absence of liner notes with translations, the album is still strong enough to hold up to repeated listens just by virtue of the music alone. Kudos to Awesome Tapes from Africa (their first release from Malian Wassoulou singer Nâ Hawa Doumbia is also highly recommended) and let’s hope they keep cranking out more albums from lesser-known corners of Africa.
Check out the official video for the track “Tigantabame”. It’s pretty epic!
By the way: Awesome Tapes from Africa (really blog editor Brian Shimkovitz) will be spinning records as a featured artist at this year’s Sasquatch! Music Festival.