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Review: Bo Culture Through Malian Afrobeat

Zabo’s debut album uniquely combines Mali's musical cultures with Afrobeat.
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Ben Zabo

Afrobeat and Mali are two words you will rarely hear together. The strength of Mali’s desert blues – made famous by Songhai guitarist Ali Farka Touré and Kel Tamashek rockers Tinariwen – seemed to resist afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti’s West African domination.

Ben Zabo, however, represents a unique marriage of the two styles. Zabo listened carefully when he was sound engineer at Bamako's Studio Bogolan, which played host to the likes of Tamikrest and Lobi Traoré. Zabo, after learning from these talents, made it his mission to shed Mali’s image of being down-tempo and reflective.

Does Ben Zabo listen to much Afrobeat?  “I have listened to too much Afrobeat”, is his quick response. Afrobeat and Mali are not so mutually exclusive, he says, citing Super Biton de Segou and L’Orchestre Kanaga de Mopti as underrated Afrobeat groups from Bamako.

Following in line with Mali’s musical strength and uniqueness, Zabo’s interpretation of Afrobeat has an identity that sets it apart from the rest. And his debut album is the first ever to be released by a Malian of Bo descent.

The balafon (a West African xylophone) driven 'Sénsénbo' could be described as Afrobeat with desert blues guitars. Anyone who has ever enjoyed a live Tinariwen performance will find an immediate connection. That raw power has been transferred successfully onto record, with Zabo’s unique Bo culture surfacing by way of its traditional Bwa language, dance (as can be seen in this music video), rhythms and melodies.

Vocals are shared with singers Virgine Dembélé and Patricia Koïta, two “musical warriors” who provide an essential female dimension.  The whole album is a tribute to mothers all over the world, says Zabo, for the suffering they endure through childbirth. The result is colourful (the sleeve notes show Zabo in a luminous orange Mohawk-style headdress), distinctly Malian and a completely original take on Afrobeat.

Ben Zabo is due for release by Glitterhouse Records on June 11.

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