Most bands, whether in the western rock tradition or in African music, are built around the concept of a leader - one strong character who is the main writer, singer and spokesman and who dominates proceedings so that the other band members are little more than hired guns.
The beauty of Tama is that there is no single leader but four equally accomplished musicians and songwriters with their own contrasting but complimentary voices. "As a group it's totally democratic and open," explains guitarist Sam Mills. "Tama is a kind of space where the four of us can come together from different cultures and traditions and express ourselves. It's a band of distinctive individual personalities but everybody contributes to the realisation of each other's songs."
It's an unusual and refreshing approach that made Tama's debut album Nostalgie a delight. Their second album Espace develops the pluralistic principle further - not least because the democratic collective has now expanded with the full-time integration of the extraordinary voice of the Malian diva Mamani Keita, who joins the original core trio of Tom Diakite, Sam Mills and Djanuno Dabo.
The result is a record which perfectly captures the easy interaction of musicians who are more interested in playing together than in parading their egos; a group of strong characters who know their own individual abilities but are more interested in pooling their collective potential to bring the best out of the songs.
Tama - the name comes from a Bambara word meaning 'to walk' - came together when the three original members met while playing with Bengali maestro Paban Das Baul. Prominent on the first album were the songs of Tom Diakite. After living in Cote D'Ivoire he arrived in Paris, where he has since played with an extraordinary range of people from Salif Keita to The Gypsy Kings.
The percussive drive came from Djanuno Dabo, who has played with countless African artists including Angelique Kidjo, Cesaria Evora and Toure Kunda. After living in Lisbon and Madrid he, too, was lured to Paris by the explosion of interest in African music in the French capital in the 1980s. Coming from the Lusaphone country of Guinea Bissau, he brought with him a different African heritage and tradition.
Another set of influences came from guitarist Sam Mills, former member of '80s indie-pop band 23 Skidoo, who were post-punk pioneers of the use of ethnic rhythms and sounds in rock music. After studying anthropology and living in Japan and Bangladesh, he then completed a PhD in Sufi Mysticism in Bengal before making the album Real Sugar with Paban Das Baul, prior to forming Tama.
Although they began as a studio project, since the release of Nostalgie Tama has also grown as a live band, playing in territories as far apart as Japan, South Africa, Russia and WOMAD in Seattle. Often Mamani Keita would appear with them and she made her first full appearance as a member on the track Sima, recorded for last year's Spirit of Africa, an AIDS-awareness album on Real World.
Mamani was present as a backing singer at the recording of Tama's first demos. "I was learning about West African music and I probably didn't realise then just how extraordinary she was," recalls Sam Mills. "The concept of Tama was to have a core of three people but that we'd use other musicians to supplement the sound. When Mamani sang, her voice and character would cut through everything. Then when Tama started playing live it became even more obvious how fantastic she was. She'd come centre stage for five minutes and take over."
Her full membership was from that point a foregone conclusion. In the meantime, she has also developed a highly successful solo career away from Tama and last year she released the acclaimed Electro Bamako album with French electronic-jazz pioneer Marc Minelli. Like both Tom and Djanuno, she also migrated from Africa to France.
Espace was partly recorded in a small studio in Paris and partly at Real World and produced by all four members of the collective. Inevitably, given the parallel careers all enjoy away from Tama, the album was recorded in stages over an 18-month period. While Mamani Keita was making Electro Bamako, Sam Mills was producing his partner Susheela Raman's album Salt Rain, on which Djanuno Dabo also plays. The album was shortlisted for the Technics Mercury Music Prize, generating huge media interest and a hectic schedule for the couple.
As a result Sam contributes less material to Espace but, as he points out, there was no shortage of material in a group in which every member is a strong writer. A major development on Espace is the way the songwriting of Djanuno Dabo has come to the fore. A singer in his earlier days in Guinea Bissau, his expressive voice is fully heard for the first time as he conveys a sense of yearning in Isnaba, a delicate fragility in Snimbe, and strength and vitality in Oka.
Mamani Keita also comes up with three superb compositions, including the outstanding Baro, which finds her digging deep into African tradition to spine-tingling effect. Once again, Tom Diakite's songwriting shines; yet he not only contributes five compositions but also proves his virtuosity as an instrumentalist, particularly on the donzo n'goni - the instrument's uniquely funky riffs can be heard all over the album and reach a pinnacle on the irresistibly rocking blues of Ibata.
"What I love in working with these singer-songwriters is that you feel they are really singing something, even when you have to ask what it means," says Sam Mills. "You feel you are not just in some box marked 'entertainment', and that music and life can somehow enrich each other."
Then there is the haunting beauty of the title track, composed by all four during a stay at Real World Studios. "That was a real expression of what the group can do when we're all bouncing off each other," Sam Mills says. "Everyone adds a vocal and it really sums up the Tama philosophy."
That philosophy, of course, also means there is plenty of space for guest appearances. From Madagascar comes Regisse Gizao, whose accordion graces the opening track Oka and the closer Foli. Susheela Raman lends her inimitable vocals to Snimbe, which tells the story of a mother and child separated by war and then happily reunited.
The exuberant 'Magic' Malik Mezzadri adds flute to several tracks, and additional instrumental textures come from Vincent Segal's cello and Herve Bongo's saxophone. Additional guitarists on the album include Djelimoussa Kouyate and Manecas Costa. "I'd like to pretend all the guitar on the album was me because there's some fantastic playing," says Mills. "But we all have very different styles and again it enhances the album's diversity."
All four members may have highly successful musical careers away from Tama. But Espace also conveys a real sense of a real band playing together. "There's a magic that is more effective as a collective," says Sam Mills. "We've come to realise that the more open it is, then the better it works. If one person dominates, it throws everything out of balance. When we come together as Tama there's an energy, a love, a determination and a chemistry which none of us can quite explain."
- 2002 Critics' Picks '...blends a strikingly original Afro-pop cocktail.' Boston Herald (USA)
- Espace is an enduring delight. Dirty Linen (USA)
- '...a new level of soulful groove.' Pulse (USA)
- Top CDs of 2002 'Tama builds on its Malian roots for a beautiful blend of voices, acoustic instruments, and gently rhythmic percussion.' Acoustic Guitar (USA)
- The group's bubbly Afropop is accessible and extremely danceable. Charlotte Observer (USA)
- 'An easygoing but never slack melange of African, Caribbean and other styles, the album shows significant growth from Tama's debut 'Nostalgie'...' Washington Post (USA)
- World becomes one in music of Tama '...funky, intricate Afropop, with highly evolved rhythms and sophisticated arrangements.' Herald-times (USA)
- 'Dabo's fluid tenor, Keita's soprano saxlike voice and Diakite's soulful singing electrify an album abounding with the entire spectrum of human emotions while moving to the rhythms of a universal dance.' Flagship (USA)
- '...a perfect piece of world fusion, using Mali as a base and growing beyond it in a beautiful blend of voices, acoustic instruments and gently rhythmic percussion.' Ithaca Times (USA)
- 'Light, airy and toe-tapping...' Jazziz (USA)
- ESPACE is lively and atmospheric... '...even better [than NOSTALGIE]. ESPACE is lively and atmospheric...There's also an enhanced palette of instrumental sounds...summing up all the virtues of ESPACE would require far more space.' Global Rhythm (USA)
- '...this beautifully paced album sees Tama walking, surefooted, in the right direction.' Jazzwise (UK)
- 'Dabo's fluid tenor, Keita's soprano saxlike voice and Diakite's soulful singing electrify an album abounding with the entire spectrum of human emotions while moving to the rhythms of a universal dance.' Virginian Pilot (USA)
- '...every taste from folklore to pan-African dance grooves is catered for...All in all an impressive consolidation.' Hmv Choice (UK)
- Soft sounds from four quarters '...this four-piece has created a fresh and inviting sound... Acoustic and graceful, this album grows on me with every listen.' Wanderlust (UK)
- 'Tama's 1999 debut, Nostalgie, was good but this is much much better... The sort of record to lose yourself in, fall in love with and play for many years to come.' Froots (UK)
- World music supergroup... 'Tama use timbres that are a delight for the ear; the percussion is bright and clear, without resorting to an overly glossy pop sound.' The Guardian (UK)
- 'The CD swirls through a funky dance of hypnotic chants and migrating African, European, and American influences while steering clear of the cut-and-paste jumble that can mar world-beat collaborations. Whether telling of a family separated by war...It's easy to (be) charmed by its cascade of lilting notes and rolling jumping rhyths. (It) delivers a gentle sparkling intensity.' Boston Globe (USA)
- 'More rooted and strongly defined, it's decidedly more confident in its approach, and more African, with Sam Mills taking more of a supporting - but still vital - role. Vocalist Assitan Mama Keita is a revelation, while the band truly gels, especially on tracks like the sizzling "Credit" and "Marimasa". More power to them for fully exploring their vision and letting it grow. They've discovered what they want to do, and made it a reality.' Www.globalvillageidiot.net