The story of how Donso’s sophomore album Defila, which was recently released by Comet Records, begins back in 2008. That was when French electro producer and owner of Ed Banger Records, Pierre Antoine Grison met Thomas Guillaume. Pierre was sitting in his Paris flat when he heard his neighbor playing a musical instrument he’d never heard before. Intrigued and more that a little curious, he decided to find out what this instrument was? 

When Pierre met Thomas, he discovered he’d been hearing a donso n’goni. It was the sacred instrument of The Hunters, a West African brotherhood. They’re famed for their mystical abilities and their powerful, spiritual music, donso trance. Thomas had been traveling between France and Southern Mali, learning not just to play the donso n’goni, but to master it. The donso n’goti was an instrument you didn’t just learn but mastered. For Thomas, it was akin to learning a craft. That’s what he been doing before he met Pierre. Soon, Thomas introduced Pierre to donso trance, which was the start of a friendship that resulted in them forming Donso.

Pierre was fascinated by donso trance. Here was ancient music played by the Malian Hunters before a battle. This wasn’t just a ritual. No. Instead, it was part of spiritual awakening. Only having heard donso trance music, were the Hunters ready to do battle. According to legend, donso trance made the warriors invisible. Having been introduced to donso trance by Thomas, Pierre became enthralled by its hypnotic, mesmeric sound. Soon, he realized that their was the potential to marry this ancient, sacred music with modern, electronic music.

As Krazy Baldhead, Pierre was an electro producer and hip hop DJ, who was signed to Ed Banger Records. Everything fell into place. Thomas had introduced him to this ancient, sacred music and Pierre was a producer of electronic music. Together, they could create a fusion of the old and the new. However, before that would happen, three new members would join what was an early version of Donso.

The first new member of Donso, was Gedeon Papa Diarra is a Malian singer and dancer. Gedeon was asked to join in 2009. Next was Moh Kouyate, a Guinean guitarist. Fluid and psychedelic, Moh’s guitar playing is crucial to Donso’s success. Ceyba Sissoko was the next musician to join Donso. A multi-instrumentalist, Ceyba played tama, drums and D’jeli n’gon. This was the lineup that recorded the first versions of Defila. However, Donso were still lacking in several areas. There was a solution, Pierre would head to Mali to recruit some new members.

After conferring, the rest of Donso decided Pierre should head to Mali. He’d been to Africa before, but never to record parts of an album. With him, he took a portable studio, tape recorded and several microphones. Once in Mali, he headed to all the places musicians hung out. Rue 235, Parc Des Princes, Class A and Diplomate were used to for impromptu auditions. Accompanying Pierre was a true legend of Malian music, violinist Zoumana Tereta. Musicians came and went, yet Pierre couldn’t find the right musicians. Things weren’t looking good. Then Pierre’s luck changed.

Eventually, having invited musicians to join Pierre and Zoumana at the French Cultural Centre, the musicians started to jam. Different ideas were tried. It was a musical exchange of ideas. Some worked, some didn’t. Essentially, it was a matter of trial and error. Eventually, they were into the type of groove Pierre was looking for. Things were at last, looking good. Three new faces would play an important role in what are referred to as the Bamoka sessions.

Bassist Moussa Bah was the first of the musicians that Pierre discovered. Previously, he’d been a member of Ngoni Ba. He’s a hugely talented bass player who plays on two tracks, Jugu and Easy Easy. Both tracks benefit from Moussa’s bubbling bass. Next to join the Bamoka sessions was Mantiaba. She made a huge impression on the session. Full of energy and enthusiasm, Mantiaba made such an impression, that a song was named after her. Guitarist Sambala Kouyate was the last musician to join the session. His contribution was somewhat rushed. In a mere ten minutes, he laid down the guitar parts on Sibi Hours and Rock Le Kalaban. Recording took place in Pierre’s hotel room. Ten minutes later, Sambala was gone. Whilst the Bamoka sessions were taking place, Zoumana Tereta was the de facto artistic director.

Zoumana was more than an artistic director. He inspired several tracks on Defila. Two of these are Dali and Heading To Gao. Although the genesis of both tracks was Zoumana, Donso reworked the tracks back in Paris. In the Paris studios, seeds planted in Mali, grew in France. Eventually, the fifteen tracks that became Defila were finished.

Released on 2nd September 2013, on Comet Records France, Defila is a more that musical collaboration between two continents. It’s more than a meeting of French and Malian music. Instead, it’s a fusion of the old and new. Religious and secular music sit side-by-side. Defila sees Donso fuse the ancient, sacred donso music fused with contemporary, modern music.  Atmospheric and evocative, it’s music that’s hypnotic and mesmeric. Lysergic and dreamy, it’s music that’s an innovative and imaginative. A genre-sprawling musical journey, Defila which I’ll pick the highlights of, is music to cherish and experience.

Opening Donso’s debut album is Duruni Part 1. It’s thirty evocative seconds of music where, instantly, you’re transported to Mali. You’re introduced to its sounds, sights and delights on the first part of this four part movement.

DJamilla’s Secret picks up where the previous track left off. Atmospheric and dramatic, it bristles with energy. A fusion of musical genres, everything from rock, electro, funk and donso is thrown into this multicultural mixing bowl. The result is a mesmeric track. Drums provide a pulsating heartbeat while keyboards and percussion join the djeli n’goni. It’s played by Abousy, whose performance is stunning, truly Hendrix-esque.

Slow, pensive stabs of keyboards open Mantiaba. Percussion signals the entrance of the Mantiaba’s vocal. It’s heartfelt, ethereal and sultry. Meanwhile, a multilayered arrangement unfolds. So much is unfolding. Two continents meet head on. The old and sacred meets the new and contemporary. Pierre plays keyboards while pounding drums, percussion and buzzing bass provide the backdrop for the ethereal beauty of Mantiaba’s vocal.

Crystalline guitars open Jugu, which features bassist Moussa Bah. This is one of two tracks he plays on. His bass n’goni anchors the arrangement. Joining him are percussion, keyboards, dundrum and crystalline guitars. Their role is to set the scene for Gedeon’s impassioned, pleading vocal. This they do. So do harmonies. They add to the emotion of this deeply moving and powerful paean.

One of the greatest discoveries that Pierre made while recording Defila, was guitarist Sambala Kouyate. On Rock Le Kalaban, he unleashes some searing, mesmeric guitar licks. This he did in just ten minutes. A man in a hurry, he never misses a beat. Here we hear a tantalizing taste of the Malian guitar great. We also hear another urgent, emotive vocal from Gedeon. As harmonies add to the emotion and ethereal beauty, rocky guitar riffs, a pounding bass and percussion provide the urgent, frenzied backdrop for his vocal.

Awakening is a showcase for multi-instrumentalist Seyba Cissoko. Here, he gives a dramatic drum masterclass. Powerful, booming drums drive the arrangement along. Bells and bubbling synths escape from the arrangement as seamlessly and peerlessly, Seyba fuses techno dub and dub step. A majestic, hypnotic track, here the ancient meets the innovative.

Duruni, Part 4 is another brief snapshot of Malian life. Singing call and response with rejoicing harmonies, distant drums encourage this joyous thanksgiving.

As Easy Easy unfolds, it’s a moderne track with a contemporary sound. That’s until sing-song harmonies set the scene for Gedeon’s impassioned, almost spiritual vocal. Quickly, they take on a hypnotic sound. Now the old and new are one. Especially when searing guitars join Moussa on bass n’goni. They join forces with the dundun and violin. However, producing the donso trance sound are the vocals, which are best described as majestically mesmeric and trancelike.

Dankala Koule closes Denfila. A broody, eerie arrangement quickly becomes ethereal. That’s when the synths are joined by Gedeon’s vocal. Heartfelt and spiritual, his vocal is full of feeling. It’s as if he’s giving thanks. As for the synths, they’re moody and dark, while the ethereal beauty of Gedeon’s vocal offers hope for Mali’s future.

Although I’ve only mentioned nine of the fifteen tracks on Donso’s sophomore album Defila, I could just as easily have mentioned any of the other tracks. It’s quality all the way. From the opening bars of Duruni Part 1, right through to the closing notes of Dankala Koule, there’s no let up in the quality. The five members of Donso see to that. Helping them, were some of Mali’s finest musicians. 

This includes vocalist Mantiaba, bassist Moussa Bah and the Pierre’s best find, guitarist Sambala Kouyate. Sounding like the ghost of Jimi Hendrix, he arrived at Pierre’s hotel room, laid down some searing, sizzling guitar riffs, then ten minutes later, was gone. What he left behind, are some of the best guitar riffs on Defila. Just like Moussa Bah, Sambala Kouyate is one of Malian music’s best kept secrets. They played their part in a compelling and hypnotic album, Defila, which was recently released by Comet Records France.

An emotional musical journey, Donso are musical pioneers. On Defila, they fuse the ancient, sacred sounds of donso trance with 21st Century electronic music. Here, religious and secular sit happily side by side. The sacred sound of donso trance is fused with electro, rock, psychedelia, dub, techno and dubstep. This proves to be compelling combination of musical genres and influences. Best described as joyous, spiritual, uplifting, hypnotic and mesmeric, Defila’s eclectic music veers between moody and broody, to lysergic and dreamy, to ethereal and beautiful. Defila is all this and more. It’s also an introduction to the multitalented Donso and their equally talented friends, who are responsible for Defila, a truly genre-melting album. Standout Tracks: DJamilla’s Secret, Mantiaba, Rock Le Kalaban and Easy Easy.


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