Sekouba Bambino

Kassa

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The second solo disc by ex-Bembeya Jazz lead singer Sekouba Bambino wants to be Salif Keita's Soro really badly. It was pulled together for international release from two Guinean records and new sessions, which probably accounts for the nine backing singers, five rhythm guitarists, and a like number of arrangers, the latter including Jean Philippe Rykiel and Boncana Maïga from Africando in the credits.

The good news on the top-dollar production is the music stays (but just barely) on the right side of full and busy without crossing over the line to cluttered. The bad news is Bambino's struggle to assert his vocal identity among all the full arrangement flourishes and programmed rhythm tracks. His singing is similar to Keita -- you can hear it clearly at the end of the opener "Bonya" -- but without the pin-your-ears-back force the Malian master can muster.

Kora runs mark "Autorail"; up-tempo tracks with snappy, precise horns like "Koumakan"; and the funky, hyper title track border on overkill, but again successfully tiptoe on the edge. "Iti Miri Nima" leans to soukous mixed with zouk and "Kassouma Ma" is a sprightly closer, but Bambino fares better here on quieter ballads like the piano-based "Damensena." The gentle "An Nya Deme" is a full-bodied ballad geared to kora and percussion, but it's still impossible to escape the feeling you're listening to Soro redux sans the cinematic sweep.

"Diommaya" promises that very quality, with its balafon line poised to drop down and the backing vocals, but it can't sustain its epic length. The down-tempo, kora-dominated "Na Soumbou" and "Acandia" are better, especially when relatively restrained arrangements let the music breathe more on the latter. Kassa gets pretty compelling, then, with the cascading strings and Bambino's voice intertwining over a percussion bed.

All reservations aside, this disc is still better than any old regulation-issue release of modern, griot-rooted West African music. You just wish Kassa didn't want to be Soro so badly.

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