I first encountered Aly Keita ‘live’ in concert, as part of ‘Acoustic Africa’ – a magical collaboration featuring Mali’s Habib Koite, alongside the Ivory Coast’s Dobet Gnahoré and South Africa’s Vusi Mahlasela
He opened the show alone, with a solo so warm that it seemed as if the sun had risen from the stage to light the cold winter night.
Highly expressive and with infectious enthusiasm, he has a natural form, and a seemingly relaxed approach to playing.
It was an enchanting experience, and the vibrancy of this virtuoso balafon player is carried over and captured on his album, “Akwaba Iniséné”.
Coming from the Ivory Coast, Aly Keita was born into a family of musicians. First taught by his father, he not only started playing the pentatonic balafon as a child, but also began building the instrument.
Later, while in Abidjan he was introduced to Jazz which inspired him to create a fusion with his traditional form, and soon he became a sought after soloist, working across the world with masters like Joe Zawinul, Omar Sosa, Paco Sery, Pharoah Sanders, Trilok Gurtu and Jan Garbarek.
Now based in Germany, he continues making his own balafons and extends his griot bloodline by playing continually in order to perfect his craft.
“Akwaba Iniséné”, an impressively varied album, offers an unexpected and exciting angle on balafon.
Besides adding an uncharacteristic flirtatious quality to the instrument, one of the most innovative elements of this offering is the inclusion of an African horn section – which is beautifully integrated with the balafon’s ethereal quality, adding a funky, old-school edge, reminiscent of West African big bands.
This is profoundly presented on the opening track “Hommage”, which begins with an extended intro of unaccompanied balafon. Atmospheric and acoustic, it’s the sound of the earth and the elements, of water and wind – an ancient call that rises in crescendo before being accompanied.
First joined by the deeply emotive vocals of Dobet Gnahoré [who features on five of the tracks], it soon picks up tempo with the inclusion of the horn section.
With the festivities already in full motion, comes the second track, “Maloya” – a victorious declaration of bass, drums and funky brass, led boldly throughout by the balafon.
On “Akan”, the third track, Dobet returns and the intuitive interaction between her and Aly affirms the synergy of these fellow-Ivorians.
Here the balafon is thinner, and speaks with a seriousness enhanced by the moodiness of her vocals.
By the 4th track “Made in C.F.P.M”, there’s no turning back. This funky tune is a hot, hearty conversation of happy horns, chaired by the lead instrument – a sure-fire hit!
What follows are mainly instrumentals, some are kept simple to focus on Aly’s brilliance, while others are joyful assertions, as with “Abidjan Folie”. Here jazz is back and boldly asserted as African!
Bass driven, it affirms Aly’s unique approach to his instrument and reflects the formality of his traditional arrangements, which he enlivens with West African swing.
The title-track is a fitting-finale, a fluid and empowered statement of solidity, with guitars, bass, drums and horn solos, reflecting all-round superb musicianship – a closing of masterful satisfaction.
As seen on the back of the CD sleeve, Aly Keita has a huge smile, and clearly so does his sound!