In Bamako, Mali, Sundays are a big deal. They are days of rest when the community is free to get dressed up and attend festivities. These events have even spawned a colloquialism, “Dimanche à Bamako,” which is also the name of Malian guitarist Bounaly’s new album. Unsurprisingly for an album recorded on a Sunday at a wedding in Bamako, an air of celebration permeates this selection of regional favorites, traditional standards, and originals. Indeed, the first thing we hear is the sound of a crowd chattering expectantly, before vocalist Alousseyni Maiga snarls a muffled opening salvo, a slinky guitar riff limbers up and down a scale, and a bustling rhythm starts to sputter. Much of desert blues begins this way, but it is never any less thrilling.
Audience, guitar, drums, vocals: although these four elements are at the core of Dimanche à Bamako, it’s the guitar that is the prime mover and serves as the focal point. Indeed, Mali might have the highest percentage per population of righteous guitar players, from Ali Farka Toure (who was born in the same town as Bounaly), to Amadou Bagayoko (who also wrote an album called Dimanche à Bamako), to Fatoumata Diawara, and many many more. Bounaly demonstrates that this tradition is alive and well. “Touré Iseye” features blistering fuzz guitar, while the chaos of “Wato To” collects around his liquid, intricate runs; at points, his style on “Ma Chérie” and “Mali Mussow” is even reminiscent of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, with pulverizing waves of diamond-edged feedback that rattle your fillings.
Bounaly and his band are in infectious, muscular form; you get the sense that they could play completely out of time and it would still sound good. However, this being audio vérité (Christopher Kirkley from Sahel Sounds recorded Bounaly’s set with a Zoom recorder), there’s a slightly haphazard quality to the renditions; occasionally you can see the joins. When Alousseyni Maiga and DJ Sali holler into the microphone, they distort the recording naturally, on “Toure Iseye” there’s an electrical fault as a guitar’s lead becomes unconnected for a few seconds and buzzes like a synthesizer, and on “Wato To” there’s an audible volume increase as Bounaly’s fuzz pedal roars into life. These are features, not bugs, and they all contribute to Dimanche à Bamako’s messy magic. The celebratory buzz emanating from the crowd speaks volumes.