Luka Productions crafts music that fuses global hip-hop styles with folktronica vibes. The brainchild of Mali’s Luka Guindo, a producer and vocalist who records in his home studio in the capital city of Bamako, the project is at its most potent when it mines a similar sonic tract to the productions Timbaland and the Neptunes served up for Missy Elliott, Clipse, and NORE around the turn of the last century—only with the sinewy sitar and synth riffs switched out for lines of ngoni, a West African string instrument. But when the 27-year-old Guindo moves on from the loop-based foundation of the album’s most infectious tracks and wanders into more musically expansive territory, the extra layers of instrumentation wind up skewering the appealing punch of his beats.
Falaw, whose title translates to Orphans, opens strongly: The introductory title track features lilting ngoni cushioning Guindo’s fleet yet tender vocals, which he recites in his native Bambara tongue in a sing-song flow. (Lyric translations are included with the album.) The run of tracks that follows contains the album’s gems. The raucous “Bbni” bubbles with dancehall-influenced rhythms and moody flashes of melody. “Foret” is even more addictive, with Guindo demonstrating his own brand of loop science by chopping up an acoustic ngoni like he’s working with an unearthed sample source. The sparse structure of the song is its charm: Vocals appear only briefly, in a call and response fashion, and when it locks into its repetitive mid-section, the track brings to mind a funky and absorbing West African beat tape.
Frustratingly, every time Guindo builds up a degree of cohesive momentum with pockets of songs like these, he can’t resist throwing in an oddly sequenced moment that derails the experience. This happens first with “Indienfoli,” whose four-to-the-floor rhythm and disco stylings come across as clunky rather than upbeat. This unfortunate dampening of the vibe repeats: The hypnotic “Djessou” pulls you in, but the grander, more fleshed-out “Sitanba” breaks the spell, sounding like an errant jazz-funk outing; the playful back-and-forth male and female vocals of “Damonson,” which features the endearingly sweet but husky voice of Rokia Kane, are swamped by closing cut “Dogonodoon,” which threatens to blast off into Detroit techno territory.
The core of Falaw ably showcases Guindo’s talent at hooking up ear-catching loops and channeling the traditional sounds of his region through a hip-hop lens, but he too often seems to become impatient or distracted; he muddles the mix by adding too much instead of letting his songs settle. Much like the tradition of crate-digging that inspired the album, Falaw shines brightest when Guindo narrows his focus on the magic of the groove.