It isn't hard to understand why someone who is trying to learn about contemporary African pop might feel intimidated or even overwhelmed. Africa is a huge continent, and there are so many different styles of African pop to learn about -- everything from the most exuberant and energetic of soukous, zouk, and makossa to moody, smoky, dusky music from Ethiopia and the Sudan. Another country that has been responsible for some of Africa's moodier, more subdued pop is Mali, home of noteworthy artists like Ali Farka Toure, Mama Sissoko, and Habib Koité (the singer/guitarist who seriously upset the tobacco industry when his anti-smoking single "Cigarette A Bana" became a major hit all over West Africa in the early '90s). Fra Fra Sound acknowledged the richness of Malian music when, in 1999, the bandmembers traveled to Bamako, Mali, and recorded Mali Jazz. This CD finds the Dutch band joining forces with several Malian musicians, including ngoni player Moussa "Vieux" Kanté and the well-respected kora soloist Toumani Diabaté -- and the end result is a stunning fusion of jazz and contemporary Malian music. Mali Jazz wasn't the first time that Fra Fra Sound was influenced by African music -- actually, African music has been influencing the group all along -- but it was the first time the band concentrated on Malian rhythms specifically and did so in the presence of Malian musicians. Some of the selections on Mali Jazz feature vocalists and some are instrumental; either way, this is an inspired, rewarding effort that maintains jazz's sense of spontaneity and improvisation while being consistently mindful of what Mali has to offer.
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AllMusic Review by Alex Henderson