Taken to Mask: Yaala Yaala performers are often anonymous.
Taken to Mask: Yaala Yaala performers are often anonymous.

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Success! You're on the list.

When Jack Carneal returned from a brief stint in Bougouni, Mali, about seven years ago, the Baltimore resident brought back plenty of what he calls “music made by Malians for Malians.” Some of these recordings were purchased at various tar-paper shanties, where bootleggers sell pirated copies at a fraction of the retail price. The rest, Carneal explained in an e-mail exchange, he recorded himself. An alt-country drummer who has played in the Anomoanon and Palace Brothers, Carneal captured music wherever he could find it: house parties, checker games, and beneath the shade of mango trees. One of these cassettes caught the ear of his tape-trading buddies at Drag City Records. They liked it so much, in fact, that they offered Carneal the chance to run his own label.

The record label that resulted, Yaala Yaala, is notable not only because it restricts its output to a single country—a rarity in the “world music” biz—but also because it restricts its output to a single style of recording. On Yaala Yaala’s MySpace page, Carneal writes that, while in Mali, “We never once heard Amadou & Mariam or Salif Keita or Habib Koité or Toumani Diabaté”—Malian artists who all have recorded in slick European studios—“and my one query regarding Ali Farka Touré, to a taxi driver, was rebuffed with a scornful, ‘Only the tubabu [white people] listen to him.’ ” What Carneal offers on Yaala Yaala’s first three releases—two bootlegs and one compilation—is folk music in its rawest form, field recordings that are more about a moment in time than up-to-the-minute, or even up-to-the-decade, production values.

If grit equals authenticity, as Carneal’s writings suggest, then the Pekos and Yoro Diallo disc is the most authentic of all three. The first sound you hear on this “bootleg of a bootleg of a bootleg” is the unpleasant whistle of unintended feedback. Pekos and Yoro Diallo, two singer-­instrumentalists who are popular in the region, play electrified ngoni, lutelike instruments often made out of nothing more than a hollow gourd, some fishing line, and a 4-to-5 foot spike of wood. The pickups used to amplify these primitive instruments create sonic problems throughout. Yet the feedback is hardly the harshest aspect of this concert recording. Both singers have booming, near-angry voices, and they punctuate their minimalist funk, or kamelen, with instrumental outbursts that all but oversaturate the tape.