The Western fetishization of “world music” has, in recent years, become both more conspicuous and less noxious. The gross exoticism that accompanied much of the early blog love for M.I.A.’s early material (and helped lead to the backlash met by 2010’s MAYA) has been supplanted by a pointed rejection of what constitutes “Western” pop culture and an increased accessibility to music being created all over the globe; this has been facilitated by the internet’s far-reaching grasp. The inevitable downside to this easy satisfaction of voracious cultural appetites is acute mercuriality — not to mention a pointlessly obsessive focus on relevance. Which is where Ndigal, an album recorded in 1984 by the Gambian group Karantamba that has not seen release until now, comes in. It’s not specifically relevant to any current musical trends, but its timelessness effectively transcends issues of coolness and shoots straight for the aurally sublime. Filled with an unabashed sincerity that enlivens the best chamber ensembles, the long live takes that make up this record have an infectious, palpable energy. Witness the giddy shuffle of “Titi,” which has contemporary relatives in the optimistic house revivalism of The 2 Bears and the tropical dance music being created by artists as far-ranging as Unicorn Kid, Tanlines, and Elite Gymnastics. Here and throughout, rhythm plays a pivotal role, providing the jumping-off point for the songs’ disparate melodic licks and vocal stylings.
And oh, what rhythms they are; kaleidoscopically unfolding as if they were being looped upon one another, the drums on this album work magic. “Na Dinding Fatty” has a particularly hypnotic pattern that expands and contracts periodically, but irregularly; the result is breathing room in a track that never stops to breathe. Additionally, the trumpet hook running throughout a good two-thirds of the 10-minute jam is filled with cracks and inconsistencies, giving the song a distinctly humanistic edge. Such unpredictability also creates an atmosphere of uncertainty, a general feeling that is amplified by the asymmetrical lengths of Ndigal’s vocal phrases. At times, two vocal lines repeat at different intervals, coming together and breaking apart in the dense musical tapestry. Thanks to the album’s warm and pristine production, we can hear every element in the mix clearly, and tracks like “Goré Nga” sound at once both carefully constructed and spontaneous. Present alongside the driving positivity that makes Ndigal sound so alive is a jammy anxiety, the incessancy of its uniformly quick tempi creating the slightest layer of unease.
But despite occasional flashes of uncertainty, the dominant emotion here is always joy. Understandable, given the story of the group’s genesis; Karantamba was founded by Bai Janha in 1982 in order to train young musicians — to “bring them up to a professional level,” as Janha says. And so the mood is consistently that of youthful curiosity, which — in Janha’s hands, at least — is always a friend to artistic symbiosis. As the guitars of the penultimate “Linga Ham” pass waves of sound between each other, the communication between players is almost audible; ditto for the perfectly executed tempo change that occurs at the one-minute mark. It’s a mesmerizing effect that calls to mind the best chamber group working today, the Bang on a Can All-Stars. Karantamba may not have that ensemble’s larger-than-life technical abilities, but they play with admirable gusto. Admittedly, this unstoppable dynamism can be a bit soporific when absorbed over the album’s 80-minute runtime. But in slightly smaller doses, and at its jubilant best, Ndigal glistens with propulsive vigor. In essence, it feels absolutely, completely vital.