Baba Commandant And The Mandingo Band achieves a classically elemental mix of sounds on its third album. The West African combo’s sound is defiantly old school. The band doesn’t go in for programmed beats, glossy keyboards or autotuned vocals. Instead, it favors a live-sounding, Afrobeat vibe that will feel just right to fans of Fela Kuti, Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou or those splendid Ghana Soundz and Nigerian Special collections that proliferated about a decade ago.
Yet, this Burkina Faso-based outfit doesn’t sound at all dated. The clean but un-futzed-with recording quality imposes no listening barriers, and there’s not a whiff of recreation about Sonbonbela’s seven songs. Baba Commandant And The Mandingo Band inhabits its moments, and even if listeners can’t understand a word that bandleader Mamadou Sanou sings (he confines himself to Burkinabè tongues), they’re likely to find his vocal performances undeniable.
Sanou’s delivery is incantory, and the grit in his growl gives the music an earthy quality that’s compounded by the rock-solid presence of Wendeyida Ouedraogo’s bass guitar. Drummer Abbas Kabore achieves a blend of body-moving impact and spaciousness similar to OG Afrobeat groove architect Tony Allen. Kabore’s propulsive flow blends with the intertwining lines of Nickie Dembele’s balafon (a West African marimba), Sanou’s doso ngoni (a stringed instrument with a gourd body) and the spectacular guitar work of co-composer Issouf Diabaté. What each instrumentalist plays is independently intricate but discretely supportive of the other musicians’ parts. The ensemble sound has an airy quality that’s pleasing, but it generates a fiery energy.
The ideal way to experience Baba Commandant And The Mandingo Band would be in a live setting, and Sanou and Co. have already toured Europe. But since performing visas are even harder for residents of Islamic countries than they are for most artists, this splendid LP is the best that American audiences can do for now. And that’s still pretty damned good.