Words by Nigel Willamson
What a joy it must have been to see and hear Les Ambassadeurs in the mid-70s, playing in the motel from which they took their name by the Niger river: an experience akin to seeing the Beatles at the Cavern or the Rolling Stones at the Marquee Club circa 1963. For, alongside the Rail Band who played across town at the Buffet Hotel, Les Ambassadeurs laid the foundations on which popular Malian music is still built to this day. Their eminence lasted only a few brief years before most of the band defected to Abidjan in 1978, but they left us half a dozen singles and two albums, all recorded at their peak between 1975 and 1977, from which the 18 tracks in this evocative collection are taken.
The golden voice of the group’s most famous son, Salif Keita, is heard on exactly half of the numbers, but he was only a part of the glory. Ousmane Dia, formerly of the Star Band of Dakar, sings on four tracks, and he wasn’t far behind Keita in soulfulness. Then there are the spiralling guitars of Kanté Manfila and Ousmane Kouyaté, the atmospheric organ of Idrissa Soumaoro and the crack horn section, showing extraordinary versatility whether essaying thrumming Mande roots styles, swaying Afro-Cuban charanga, James Brown-tinged Afro-funk or rocking, Fela-styled beats. Essential.