New foragers

Pub date June 11, 2008
WriterMax Goldberg
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

Jack Carneal is trying to locate a Malian musician to secure the release of a much-cycled bootleg on his microlabel, Yaala Yaala Records. Fueled by exuberance and somewhat chastened by controversy, Carneal is worrying over Yaala Yaala No. 4 more than he did the first three releases: a dubbed set of howling electric kamelen music by Pekos and Yoro Diallo; a popular bootleg recording of griot Daouda Dembele; and an audio collage of Carneal’s minidisc field recordings from his yearlong stay in Bougouni, Mali. Yaala Yaala No. 5 recently materialized in the form of a magisterial compilation of traditional hunter’s music by vocalist Yoro Sidibe, but the old bootleg is taking more time. "I heard it decades ago, and it just really stuck with me," Carneal reflects over the phone from his Baltimore, Md., home. "I didn’t even know it was from Mali until I lived there and I saw the musician’s name…. It was mastered and everything, and I’m still trying to find the musician to get him some money. In the past this wouldn’t have stopped me. I just would have done it."

No one contends that the music on the initial Yaala Yaala CDs isn’t dazzling. The rough sonic textures of cassette dubbing and crowd noise only thicken their cinematic quality, especially with the skip-and-start rhythms of Pekos and Yoro Diallo’s rumbling blues. But a number of critics — most notably Clive Bell of The Wire were incredulous about the packages’ lack of annotative liner notes and Carneal’s rush-delivery approach. (Unable to recompense for bootlegs, Carneal established a fund called the Yaala Yaala Rural Musicians’ Collective for whatever scant profits the discs might produce.)

It’s evident talking to Carneal — an English professor at Towson University and former drummer of Anomoanon and Palace Music — that profit motive isn’t part of the Yaala Yaala equation. But past exploitations cast a long shadow. Labels like Yaala Yaala, which is distributed by Drag City, and Sublime Frequencies don’t play by the outmoded rules of so-called world music production, eschewing both academic empiricism and the major labels’ reductive tendency to isolate bankable masters. Meanwhile, kids in Mali listen to dubbed tapes of Led Zeppelin and Jay-Z.

For the new Yoro Sidibe release, Carneal went through the proper contracting but was ultimately foiled by a corrupt producer. "We did everything above-board and legally, and the musician still got ripped off," he laments. Cullen Strawn’s liner notes explain that the donso music Sidibe powers through — long, call-and-response narrations designed to praise and bully hunters into action — is an especially ancient form, but it’s easy to appreciate why the vocalist is popular in the Bougouni marketplaces, beyond the music’s traditional context. Sidibe sounds intensely poised throughout the CD’s three cascading chants, periodically popping into a rapid-fire oratory that crowds out even his accompanist’s confirming hum. The dense ngoni (six-stringed spike harp) flurries capping each verse are perfect examples of the visceral highs Carneal relishes in Malian music.

"I recognize the danger in bringing this music back from Mali and having it reflect my very limited interpretation of an experience," he tells me. "I really want the listener to be able to listen to the music and derive something of their own that was not affected by my subjective take on things." Good taste certainly doesn’t mitigate responsibility, but listeners can only hope that music distribution might continue to be the province of committed amateurs, the sort of imprints like Yaala Yaala, Sublime Frequencies, and Dust-to-Digital that value the unclassifiable and throw the spigot open in accordance with the Mississippi Records motto, "Always — Love before Gold." (Max Goldberg)