Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Mamani Keita & Marc Minelli [extended]

  • Electro Bamako [Palm, 2003] A-
  • Yelema [No Format, 2006] A-
  • Gagner l'Argent Français [No Format, 2011] B+

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Electro Bamako [Palm, 2003]
When white Parisians meddle in the music of African Francophones, I shudder. I recall Salif Keita's fused keybs, Angelique Kidjo's dull disco, Lokua Kanza studying le jazz in la France, sideburned sidemen and crotch-pumping yé-yé girls anonymous to me. Minelli is an obscure alt-pop lifer with no background in Malian music. He'd barely met Salif's identically surnamed former backup singer when a mutual acquaintance importuned him to build her the sampled jazz-lounge-reggae-jungle-bambara-soundtrack settings here. Yet the mesh is blessed whether it aspires to beatwise pastiche or tuneful corn about aiding les enfants. Neither half would mean much without the other. As it is, however, Minelli could be a Diabate, and Keita sounds like she's spent her life strolling the Boulevard Saint-Germain. I wonder whether they've ever tried going to bed. If I were them I'd be scared. A-

Mamani Keita: Yelema [No Format, 2006]
On his first album with Keita, Nicolas Repac distinguished himself from her original svengali--Marc Minelli, who eased her into a loungey Euro-Africana whose acuity and integrity defied all odds--by balancing canny synth inventions with a wealth of Malian instruments and voices. Its charm, which in retrospect helps explain Minelli's success as well--and which eludes analysis because the grooves and melodic contours are so un-American--is the uncanny way Keita's own voice recalls the young Billie Holiday's plush, unpushy croon. The effect is about sound, not meaning--far from suggesting Holiday's irony or humor, the unrhymed summations the package provides are long on Afro-homilies, though the straightforward adoption advice and disdain for clueless elders have a sharpness to them. But after half a century of hopeless Holiday imitators, the physical fact is exceptionally seductive--and clearly not an imitation at all. A-

Mamani Keita: Gagner l'Argent Français [No Format, 2011]
After studying a video featuring a photo of Ms. Keita, abstract renditions of industrial worksites, and the lyrics in big block letters, I realized that I know enough French to follow a title song that goes, "Gagner l'argent français/Pas facile, pas facile"--"Earning French money/Isn't easy, isn't easy." I even learned a new piece of French slang: bosser, which according to means "to work, slog/slave away." That's a song-of-the-year candidate pour moi. Unfortunately, the rest of the lyrics are almost exclusively in Bambara, which in the absence of trots renders the album atmospheric by definition--spare and lovely, but not supernally so. Mastermind Nicolas Repac favors trap drums physical or otherwise, kora, and spookily ethnic-once-removed synths. A duet with gruff-voiced ngoni master Adama Coulibaly changes things up at just the right moment. B+