Much of the music that has emanated from the West African nation of Mali has been the lyrical sounds of the kora and traditional vocal styles. But, once in while, we are treated to something different, such as the Tuareg rockers Tamikrest. And now we have Ben Zabo with his Bwa beats, bringing us another take on what is known as Afrobeat – made world famous by the radical singer, saxophonist, band leader and composer, Nigeria’s Fela Kuti.
But this sound is not just a replica of Kuti’s world-famous musical heritage. It incorporates instrumental influences that Kuti never experimented with, such as the balafon. But, undeniably, Kuti would immediately recognise the driving bass, powerful horns and even those female backing vocals as being of his ilk, even if the texture of the sound has evolved a few stages.
Ben Zabo, the band, is the work in progress of Ben Zabo the man, a.k.a. Arouna Moussa Coulibaly. His ethnicity is the Bwa peoples, and his affiliation is with their Bwatun culture. His roots are in southeastern Mali, close to the Burkina Faso border. He was born into nobility at Tominian in Mali’s Ségou region, where he spent his childhood.
Interestingly, he told the French radio station RFI that originally his musical idol was the Ivorian reggae star Alpha Blondy. “I wanted to make hardcore reggae ,” he told the interviewer. Against the advice of his parents, who urged him to study for a more solid career as a pharmacist, he joined the band Coumba, based in Binke, in 2000 and subsequently several other groups after moving to Bamako. Then, in 2006, he enrolled at the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers Multimédia, Bamako. For five years he studied hard at the Conservatoire, securing himself a job after he graduated as a sound technician. This allowed him to hone his guitar skills, begin writing songs and to draw together the nucleus of a band. The name that he has adopted and which his band also carries means, in Bo (the mother tongue of the Bwa people) etymology, “son of Bo and Bambara,” a reference to twin identities.
First Bwa album
All the songs on the CD, written by Ben Zabo, are sung in Bo and Glitterhouse’s press release claims that it is the first ever album to be released by a Malian of Bwa descent. The Bwa are a minority in Mali, but substantial numbers live in central Burkina Faso. Ben Zabo explains that in Bwa tradition, the value of music is primarily judged on its rhythmic character. How Ben Zabo came to record this album was the result of a chance encounter. He was still working at the Malian capital Bamako’s premier sound studio, Studio Bogolan, as an assistant engineer when he met Chris Eckman from the US, and Glitterhouse Records’ owner, Peter Weber from Germany, who were recording the Tamikrest band.
Highly impressed by his passionate enthusiasm and musical talent, after listening to some of his songs they decided that they wanted to record him.
Eckman, who produced and mixed the album for Glitterhouse and contributes by playing the organ in the band on this album, also provides a profile of Ben Zabo in the CD’s liner notes.
He likens the band’s music to “a string of firecrackers igniting on the dance floor of a midnight party. It is a music that has been perfected in the loud, sweaty, open-air clubs that line the outskirts of Bamako, places where the competition to get heard is fierce … its raw but focused energy sets it apart”.
Unfortunately, his songs lyrics are not translated in the album notes, but we are reliably informed that they develop themes relating to social values such as brotherly love, gender equality, peace, justice, tolerance, solidarity, work and good governance.
All of these are, for him, sustainable human development factors, which remain the only guarantee of integrity and social cohesion. These are crucial messages for a country that is currently experiencing so