Alafia, Sidi Touré's third recording for Thrill Jockey, is as different from its predecessors as they are from one another. While his debut Sahel Folk was an informal offering cut at his sister's house with friends; Koïma, a much more lively offering, was done in a proper studio. Touré recorded Alafia in Bamako and in Nantes, France. The latter location was necessary due to dangerous conditions in Mali during 2012 and into 2013.The longstanding Touareg rebellion for recognition became an insurrection. It reached fever pitch and led to a military coup of the democratically elected government "to restore order." Foreign Islamist extremist elements capitalized on the conflict and tried to reverse Malian cultural traditions that date back more than 2000 years -- by force. They took control of Touré's Gao (city and region) for a while before being chased out by the intervening French military. Strife is the setting for Alafia. Touré uses Malian folk forms such as takamba, holley, and abarbarba through the five-note pentatonic scale that designates centuries-old Songhai tradition. In addition to his rhythm guitar and vocals, he is accompanied by a lead guitar, n'goni, bass, calabash, and three backing vocalists who are, in essence, another musical instrument in the mix. The sense of urgency leads Touré to lay claim to what is his by birthright in both the militant opener "Ay Hora: My Dance" and "Ay Takamba: My Takamba," both of which reveal startling interplay between n'goni, guitars, and calabash. On the latter, the vocal chorus both responds and duets, becoming its own Wall of Sound. "Waayey: The Butcher" is an intense, droning, Songhai blues, with Touré and his vocalists creating a counter rhythm to the calabash and the stringed instruments. "Mali" is so frenetic rhythmically, only the pentatonic scale and its soloing guitars and n'goni keep it distinct from its distant cousin, Afrobeat. There are songs here that reflect the earlier, more relaxed, and joyful aspects of Malian culture in "La Paix: The Peace" and "Annour El Sahel: The Light of Sahel," both gorgeously adorned by Chieck Diallo's flute. They give us a look back at Touré's earlier recordings. Alafia is a serious album, and its musical complexity, its rich lyric structures, dynamic textures, and complex rhythmic palette serve to reflect on the bitter fruit of conflict, yet make it Touré's most compelling musical statement to date.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek