Banning Eyre Launches Lion Songs Records w/ Inaugural Album Release

Over the past three decades, as an author and photographer, an accomplished guitarist, frequent commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered, and Senior Producer for the Peabody Award-winning public radio series Afropop Worldwide, Banning Eyre has lived a fascinating professional life in pursuit of a singular passion for African music.

In that time, Eyre has traveled to over 23 African countries and inhabited a complex set of disparate roles in relation to his muse — from that of dedicated student of African guitar styles under masters such as Mali’s Djelimady Tounkara, to that of the intrepid journalist and rogue ethnomusicologist on a mission to bring the sounds and stories of African musical creativity to countless Western audiences through his books, photographs, productions, performances and stunning field recordings.

Giving voice to a lifetime of songs and sounds encountered on his travels, Banning Eyre announces the official launch of Lion Songs Records, a label dedicated to amplifying the unique beauty of contemporary African music traditions and highlighting that music’s deep interconnection with popular culture in the Americas and around the world. And fittingly, as its inaugural release, Lion Songs Records is proud to present Mande Guitar: African Guitar Series, Volume 1, an intimate acoustic session by Boubacar “Badian” Diabate, one of the greatest Mande guitarists of the 21st Century.

Born and raised in Bamako, Mali, in a family of djeli (griot) musicians, Badian is well known at home as a master of his art and a highly innovative improviser, yet he is considered an unsung hero of Malian guitar outside the Mande world. The Mande griots (djelis) of West Africa inherit a rich musical legacy of virtuosity on the kora harp, ngoni lute and wooden balafon.

In recent times, these traditions have migrated to the guitar in the hands of masters in Mali, Guinea, Gambia and elsewhere. Mande Guitar: African Guitar Series, Volume 1, provides a rare opportunity to hear one of these great maestros outside of his usual milieu, Mali’s noisy and vibrant wedding parties. Beautifully recorded by the Afropop Worldwide team, the album showcases Badian in purely acoustic, instrumental mode, playing stunning instrumental renditions of some of the great tunes of the Mande repertoire.

Says Lucy Durán, a world authority of Mande music and the producer of many of the genre’s most important albums, including key works by Toumani Diabate, Kasse Mady, Trio da Kali, “In Badian’s florid, lyrical but passionate touch, with its shades of both ngoni and kora, there are clear echoes of his mentor, the late great Bouba Sacko, who guitar connoisseurs will remember from his album Bajourou. Anyone who is a fan of Malian music, the desert blues, or even just the acoustic steel-string guitar, will find Mande Guitar irresistible.”

Eyre had first met Badian in Bamako back in 1995, while living there to research his second book In Griot Time, and studying the intricacies of Mande guitar playing under an informal apprenticeship with the legendary Djelimady Tounkara. At that time, Badian was a determined young protégé of the late Mande guitar maestro Bouba Sacko and would come by in the evenings when Eyre and Djelimady would be sitting out on the stoop with their guitars, after dinner. Eyre was so thoroughly impressed by his musicality and unusual take on the typical West African two-finger technique, that he agreed to sell his Hohner electric guitar to the persistent young Badian for $75 and video of his finger-stylings in action.

“We recorded the video with Adama Tounkara, who was Djelimady’s nephew,” remembers Eyre, “each playing and switching off between ngonis and guitars …and it is really the most riveting hour and a half of video I ever shot. The two of them together were just vibing in this extraordinary way.”

It would be some 15 years later, when Badian began making occasional visits to the U.S. to perform for the West African community in New York, that the two crossed paths again and Badian persisted in asking Eyre to help him record a CD. Remembering his awe during those raw, stripped down jam sessions back in Bamako, Eyre agreed to help produce the recording on the condition that it just feature Badian on acoustic guitar — no vocals, no percussion, no electronics.

Eyre loaned Badian a couple guitars and they recorded eleven tracks at Afropop Worldwide’s Studio 44 in Brooklyn. Badian’s brother Manfa accompanied him on guitar for a few tracks, while Baye Kouyaté provided percussion on another. Badian also invited Eyre to accompany him on a song he composed for his grandfather. But for the most part, what you hear on the recording is extraordinary musicianship from one of Africa’s great unsung guitarists.

That session, which would become Mande Guitar: African Guitar Series, Volume 1, would also become the prototype, setting the unique tone and aesthetic for future Lion Song Records releases. Says Eyre, “In the future, I’d like to make other recordings, either in the studio or in the field, that really are just African guitar recordings, acoustic or electric, but really focusing on the guitar and not letting too many other things get in the way. So that’s why I called this first release African Guitar series, Volume One.”

Yet, Eyre also points out that while Lion Songs will be largely focused on guitar and acoustic music, and largely focused on Africa, the label will not necessarily be limited to those things. Last year, for example, the trio Voyagers recorded a live-in-studio album with Eyre on guitar, Austrian saxophonist Edith Lettner and Malian kora player Yacouba Sissoko. That album, Chasing Light, is nearing completion in post-production and will be the next Lion Songs release. Fans can also expect some great video content to be released with the album, as the recording session was filmed by Edith’s husband.

Also in the works is Eyre’s very own web broadcast program Banning Air, which will be live streamed from a custom studio set he has been building in his house over the past year in lockdown. Once all the pieces are in place and the programming logistics teased out, Eyre will ultimately be able to perform, talk about his travels, deejay his favorite music and videos, and conduct live interviews, from his home studio, adding yet another creative platform to the larger Lion Songs vision.

“All of my work with African music, over the years and in different capacities, has all been driven by a desire to put forth a certain aesthetic,” says Eyre, “Lion Songs Records is the vehicle that I’m developing to project that aesthetic and amplify my idea of what beauty is to the world. The Badian recording really exemplifies that and I think it, as much as any recording I can imagine, lays out what I would like to do with this label moving forward.”

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