Nahawa Doumbia

Nyama Toutou/Didadi

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You usually won't hear someone object to two-LP/one-CD packages -- value for money, you know -- but Nyama Toutou/Didadi is a real night-and-day affair. It's an interesting one, though, because Boncana Maiga of Africando arranged both LPs, so this package provides a primer on what can happen to an African singer fed to the high-priced, hyper-slick Paris session machine.

It starts with the sophisticated Euro/Afropop of the Nyama Toutou LP, which suffers from an uncontrollable urge to fill any open space in the arrangements and slots with Nahawa Doumbia, the interchangeable lead vocalist. That hurts on the nice, funky-riff undertow of "Tounkan," when Doumbia's voice is mixed down, way behind the instruments, so she can't put her stamp on the tune. After a rap bridge, she's battling horns, and while the slow, traditional title track has nice guitar riffs, they're overwhelmed by keyboard blankets and portentous bass drum thumps.

"Sinzin" could be a good, soul-inflected song, but it's too cluttered with horns, backing voices, and busy guitar/bass riffing, before hitting a soukous/rave-up section. The ballad "Djigui Yiri" can't overcome its overblown arrangement, and "Sigi Sele" and "Conon" -- well, if they like Doumbia as a singer so much, how come they bury her voice in the mix? It's as though the producers don't trust her to carry the songs on her own.

The final six songs are drawn from the Didadi LP; Doumbia's first success outside Mali, and one recorded before the tracks described above were mixed. They're noticeably more African in feel, maybe because more African musicians played on them. Change is obvious right away on "Djina Mousso" -- the sound is much sparer, the keyboard washes more atmospheric, and, most importantly, Doumbia's voice is right up front-and-center in the mix, just where it should be.

"Banani" works off a reggae rhythm with big drums, and Doumbia sings far more freely, while "Mogoya" starts with some neo-trad Mali-inflected beats, and then does a mid-song shift to end up in a vibrant, near-soukous variant with horns. "Djuguya" has a good, choppy arrangement, full of contrapuntal themes, including voice and a (usually irritating but not here) poly-synth string sound slicing through. Both "Baroo" and "Nteriwe" wind up too funky/busy, but they do have their appeal, especially when the latter opens like it wants to be a Malian take on the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back."

The split session syndrome means Nyama Toutou/Didadi isn't very satisfying as a whole, but its true value may be as an object lesson as to why many African music fans don't like that glossy Euro/Afropop style. You can hear the difference in approach clearly here. It's not like Doumbia was aiming for a traditional sound, or even that she's anything that special as a singer, because those last six tracks fall way closer to good than great. But at least they sound like the music she wanted to make on her record.

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