African musicians don’t need outside help. Lately, Nigerian Afrobeats, South African amapiano and other sleek, high-tech, thoroughly danceable styles have reached listeners worldwide without Western mediators. But the proof of a collaboration is in its sound, not its pedigree, and the album “Bamanan” is a transcontinental alliance that finds its own synergy.
“Bamanan” pairs Rokia Koné — a songwriter and singer from Mali who was a core member of the West African collective Les Amazones d’Afrique on their 2017 album “Republique Amazone” — with Garret “Jacknife” Lee, an Irish producer who has worked with U2 and Taylor Swift and is now based in California.
Koné’s voice rightfully leaps out of every song. Drawing on West African griot style, she sings with gritty insistence, building up to a sandpapery rasp when her melodies hit their peaks. Her Malian band provides percussion, backup vocals and barbed, modal lead guitar parts that hint at traditional African instruments. Lee adds keyboards, guitars and drumbeats, placing the songs in a swirling, spacious digital realm.
It’s an equal partnership that’s clearly enacted in the opening song, “Bi Ye Tulonba Ye” (“Today Is a Great Party”), a call for unity and an end to disagreements. At the beginning, Koné’s vocals are an urgent incantation amid reverent, hovering synthesizer tones, with a steady beat that slowly reveals itself. But the song lifts off as her band joins in, surrounding her with rhythmic and melodic crosscurrents of percussion and guitars.
“Bamanan” was constructed gradually and remotely; Koné and Lee never met in person while making the album. During the pandemic, sessions that Koné and her band had recorded in 2016 and 2018 — vocals in Paris, instruments in Mali — were sent to Lee after he heard Les Amazones when judging a remix contest. In 2020, Lee added instrumental parts and production to Koné’s sessions, and he collaborated on a new song with Koné, “N’yanyan.”
Koné sang the vocals for “N’yanyan” in Mali in August 2020, on the day a coup toppled Mali’s government. Her melody is based on an ancient song; Lee’s production provides simple, sustained electric-piano chords. On a day of political upheaval, Koné thoughtfully counseled taking a long view while reflecting on mortality: “This life is passing/It’s only a moment in time,” she sang in Bambara, the language she uses throughout the album.
The sweep of history and a sense of indignation both course through “Bamanan.” Although she does not come from a hereditary griot family, Koné writes like a griot: a cultural guardian recalling history and speaking as a community conscience. “Bamanan” is named after the Bamana Empire, two centuries when Bambara leaders ruled much of what is now Mali. “Anw Tile (It’s Our Time)” meshes modal guitar curlicues and glimmering synthesizers as Koné and her backup singers chronicle the empire’s leaders and geography: “This time is golden,” women’s voices declare in unison. “Those who missed it, it was a great time.”
The album also extends the forthright feminism Koné shared with Les Amazones. “Mayougouba” (“Move, Dance”) joyfully tells women worldwide, “You’re perfect as you are.” The album’s most kinetic song, “Kurunba,” paces its call-and-response vocals with galloping percussion and quick synthesizer ripples, as Koné’s narrator rails at being cast aside by her husband after raising their child: “Now my child is of age/Suddenly the door is shut on me,” she reproaches.
Koné also remade a song she brought to Les Amazones: “Mansa Soyari,” which celebrates female role models and insists, “A country isn’t great without women.” With Les Amazones, the song was swaggering, distorted, psychedelic rock; with Lee, it’s lighter, more syncopated and more transparent, invoking the kora (harp-guitar) patterns of griot songs, but also hinting at funk and flaunting some otherworldly digital manipulations. With its deep Bambara foundations, the song is certain of where it comes from; it’s just as certain that its passion will be understood anywhere.
Rokia Koné & Jacknife Lee