They call him “Techno Issa” or “Electric Issa.” From Mali, Issa Bagayogo has burst upon the music scene, and this spring was topping the charts in Europe. With a sound that bridges the gap between traditional music and digital fusion club music, he’s set to become a roots-music phenomenon. Mali, of course is a musical powerhouse that has already produced international stars like Ali Farka Toure and Salif Keita. But Issa is something new and different. He is making music that is true to its roots in Mali but that is also daring, funky, and global in appeal.
Issa’s first album, Sya, sold 15,000 copies in Mali and made him a leading star in his own country. In 1999 he was declared Malian’s Song’s Brightest New Hope by national television and radio there. The Rough Guide to World Music opined that this first album may come to be seen as a classic milestone for African music in general and for Malian music in particular. At a showcase performance last October at WOMEX/Rotterdam, Issa’s innovative “electro roots” music was the talk of the festival. The factchy fusion sounds caught everybody’s attention. “They rocked the house,” wrote Sean Barlow. Released in February 2002 on the U.S. record label Six Degrees, Issa’s exciting new album Timbuktu has also been greeted with massive critical acclaim. Everyone seems to agree. Something new and important is coming out of Mali. So what is going on?
Born in 1961 in a rural community in the south of the country, Issa started off playing the dari, a sort of iron scraper, played to energize the peasants in their work in the fields. By the age of twelve he was learning to sing and to play the kamala ngoni, a kind of guitar. He was talented and people liked his music, which came from a very traditional place in the culture of his people. This encouraged him to make a career out of his music, so in 1991 he moved to Bamako, the capital of Mali, in search of recording work. There he met up with two extraordinary Frenchmen, Philippe Berthier and Yves Wernert, who were going to have a great effect on the future direction of his unique talent and creativity.
Issa epitomizes the new face of Malian music, though he is firmly rooted in its traditions. He belongs to the caste of the blacksmiths, and the ethnic group of the Bozos, fisherman who live on the banks of the river Niger, Macuna, or on the edge of Lake Debo. The ngoni is the traditional three-stringed guitar of the hunter in his country. Since hunting ngonis are not supposed to be played in a secular context, it caused great controversy when some young musicians began to do so. Issa, and others like him, got around the prohibition by playing the kamalen ngoni, a six-stringed adaptation of the original instrument. The ngoni plays a central role in his music. Many of Issa’s songs are built around ngoni arrangements and this makes his music feel organic: a natural music growing out of its Malian roots. Even so, Issa’s chrome-plated version of the instrument glitters magically under the bright spotlights of Western auditoriums. At WOMEX, for example, the performance started with three spectacular ngoni players setting the stage on fire with their scintillating strings.
In the 1980’s, in a venture as brilliant as it was quixotic, Philippe Berthier and Yves Wernert had set up Mali K7, a recording studio in Bamako in the heart of West Africa. Philippe, formerly a record-shop owner from Lyons in France, had moved to Mali at the beginning of the decade. Yves Wernert was the former bass guitarist of Double Nelson, a French group. With the support of Malian star Ali Farke Toure, the studio had been founded with the aim of bringing about a marriage between traditional Malian music and the digital-fusion club music that was fast becoming the rage in Europe and North America. But the approach was unorthodox: the two Frenchmen worked with an enormous number of peopl