Baaba Maal Live at the Royal Festival Hall

Over the past few years, Baaba Mal has gradually assumed the mantle of the voice in African music once worn by Youssou N’Dour, and Mal’s voice is one of distinctive and unmistakable power, a compelling blend of brittle tones and full-throated passion. Unfortunately, that voice is rarely served with deserving material — not a question of songwriting, but of an over-digitised production style eyeing a Western market. Not surprisingly, then, Mal’s prowess is probably best witnessed live, and a concert recording featuring Jamaican guitar eminence gris Ernest Ranglin only sweetens the deal. Indeed, their collaboration on "Koni" is a high point on this four-track live album — Ranglin’s subtly, playfully deft style cajoling Mal into playing it cool and actually singing, instead of simply blowing away his audience with his vocal power. The other stellar moment is "African Woman," the title of which may be a tribute to the African diaspora, given the way its insistent groove and raucous instrumental jams are bed-rocked in Cuban rhythms. Much of the album, though, suffers from the same things that have plagued Mal’s recordings — a plodding lifelessness of arrangements that sap the vigour of Mal’s music somewhere in the myriad patch cords snaking their way to the mixing board. However strong Mal’s live shows are, for about half the album, that energy and passion fails to translate onto disc, leaving you with an impression of a sprawling, spotless concert stage creaking under the weight of gleaming instruments and state-of-the-art musical technology, which makes for a paradoxically cold and arid sound to work at cross purposes to a voice as warm as Baaba Mal’s. (Rykodisc)