Bembeya Jazz vocalist Sekouba Bambino continues his ongoing quest to follow the musical model of Salif Keita's epochal Soro. And guess what? He nailed it this time. Sinikan is a rootsier version of Kassa and the freshest disc in this modern, griot-rooted West African pop vein in recent memory.
Yes, it looks back to Soro by recruiting François Bréant for the arrangements (he did half of the landmark Keita disc) and bringing in Keita's regular guitarist Ousmane Kouyate to anchor the band. But most crucially, Sinikan strikes the right balance between African roots and Europop polish, allowing Bambino's individuality to shine through, his voice front and center in a lush, full bed of sound on this collection of five-minute songs.
So big, dramatic string swirls play off bass and kora/balafon sounds on the title track, "Decourage" rocks out with horns and lead guitar upfront, and "Ate Tolama" opens with a nice bass melody and muted voice before hitting its loping stride. "Ni Matele" weighs in with more detail, dramatic strings, and hard-to-figure rhythm moves to help get a sweeping cinematic sound and the roots-simple "Famou" with accordion, "Ndiwa Ndiwa," and "Gnangnini," with its breathy flute solo, are ruled by skittering kora lines playing off Bambino's voice.
"Banandiou" works in a mournful, bluesy mode with a lonely horn-synth solo before Bambino enters, the Keita influence apparent, but he's more of a straight-ahead singer who doesn't aim for virtuoso turns. The ballad "Diougouya Magni" is softer, with a prominent jazzy/bluesy harmonica part, a unique and inventive touch that shows the creative effort that went into crafting Sinikan. But the final three tracks offer the real proof positive of that. "Promesse" ropes in Paris-based Senegalese rapper Disiz La Peste to rhyme in French against Bambino's vocal over an almost go-go beat, with nice funky guitar topped by flute. It's an obvious play for the youth market, but winds up as a totally organic, unforced groove that works perfectly. The most radical move is tackling James Brown's "It's a Man's World," with Bréant's arrangement Afro-stringing up the melody and just letting Bambino be Bambino, and it works wondrously well.
Taking the "Famou" dance remix into the soukous zone with compelling guitar and basslines while the horns and drums itch for the chance to bust loose pales in comparison, but it's a strong track, too. Sinikan is a great disc, pure and simple, one that deserves to become as much of a latter-day reference point for current West African pop as Soro was in it its day.