Sidi Touré & Friends’ Sahel Folk appears to be pan-proof. Only a First World bully would try to find fault with this prime example of Malian blues, which so effectively conjures up visions of the ancient town of Gao and expresses the interior workings of the musicians that created it. To criticize Sahel Folk, recorded by Touré and his friends at his sister’s house in between cups of tea, is to assail the culture of Mali itself. In order to say something negative about it, one must summon every ounce of imperial hubris and ethnocentric pettiness. Nonetheless, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention this: Listening to Sahel Folk, it’s clear that Touré has been enjoying way too much J.J. Cale.
In fact, Touré has cited the laid-back Oklahoma troubadour as a major influence from his youth, and often, he seems to channel Cale’s more soporific qualities. Keep your eyelids open, though, and it’s clear that Sahel Folk is an album of small charms and light touches, if not world-music sweep. Touré’s winsome and delicate fingerstyle guitar is the album’s hypnotic constant, while his friends make their presence known with backup vocals and traditional instruments. “Taray Kongo” is a showcase for Jambala Maiga’s kuntigui, a monochord guitar, while on “Bon Koum,” Douma Maiga impresses with the three-stringed guitar known as the kurbu.
The main attraction of Sahel Folk is Touré’s soulful, emotionally-varied voice. On “Adema,” a song about the political party Alliance for Democracy in Mali, his voice is plaintive yet hopeful, and an instrument evocative enough that fluency in Songhaï isn’t required for enjoyment. In fact, Sidi Touré’s vocals surpass those of another Malian musical legend, the late Ali Farka Touré. Although there’s no close blood relation between the two, the shared name is not insignificant: It marks a noble lineage that can be traced back to the Askia kings of the 15th century.
But while Sidi Touré’s bloodlines may be regal, the low-key, field-recording feel of Sahel Folk is purely plebian, accessible across borders and social strata. Listeners may need some between-song caffeination to make it all the way through, but overall, Sahel Folk is more enchanting than sleep-inducing. The one-sheet may suggest a release annoyingly resistant to unfavorable reviews, but Touré has earned almost every bit of the praise he’ll undoubtedly receive.