Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba – I Speak Fula (Sub Pop-Out/Next Ambiance) Keith Boyd 12.11.9
Bamako, Mali is the New York, Detroit and LA of West African music. While Dakar, Senegal is perhaps a bit more cosmopolitan, in Bamako the very streets pulse with a wild mixture of home grown Hip-Hop, Blues, Jazz, Rock and indigenous styles. Nightclubs, such as the infamous Bar Bozo, blaze with music and dancing which starts near midnight and doesn’t end until the early morning. Amongst this embarrassment of riches a few musicians have the made the leap from local to international star. Names that come to mind include Ali Farka Toure, Salif Keita, Toumani Diabate and Oumou Sangare. For every one of these breakouts there are 20 plus unknowns, all as equally and fiercely talented. One of the newer crop of musicians to emerge from sideman status is Bassekou Kouyate. His first album, 2007’s “Segu Blue”, was a delightful ride through the musical styles of the Bambara people of Mali and heavily featured the vocals of Kouyate’s wife Ami Sacko. His new album, “I Speak Fula” goes one better than his debut by tightening up the pace and in doing so he has produced a master work.
Bassekou Kouyate is a virtuoso of the ngoni (West African lute), which approximates the larger kora (West African harp) in sound but with a harder, more percussive edge. His start in professional music was as the lead ngoni player in Toumani Diabate’s Symmetric Band, but his lineage as a Kouyate family Griot (Bard) goes back for centuries. Although he and his band are known as an electrifying live act, the new album goes a long way towards transmitting those same special energies. Long hailed as an iconoclast in regards to his instrument, Kouyate and his band have made further innovations in the field of Ngoni playing. They have added a lower-tuned and custom bass Ngoni and added extra strings to their own instruments all of which has lent their music a greater harmonic flexibility. The sound of the album is simply astonishing. Intricate and delicate melodies criss-cross in waves while powerful solos pop through the mix. Thunderous and clacking percussion drives the music along while the male harmonies and lead singing (again on this disc) of Ami Sacko phase in between softness and intensity.
While the entire album rings with pleasant intrigue and listenablity, two stand out tracks are “Jamana Be Diya” and the title cut “I Speak Fula”. The former deftly mixes African history and mythology into an homage to the election of Barack Obama. While the later reels out a mind-boggling yet danceable rhythm in 9/8 time.
So much of the African (maybe any non-Western country) music that is released in the US either falls into the “World Music Ghetto” or is marketed as ethnomusicology. By being on a label like Sub Pop (much like the wonderful Moroccan Gnawa collection was on Drag City earlier this year) these categories will hopefully either be expanded or left behind. What matters here is the music. Yes the story is interesting and yes it is worthwhile knowing a bit about the musician’s tradition or subject matter but ultimately it comes down to the sound. Maybe with the help of a few Indie/Hipster imprints a mountain of amazing music will finally make it passed museum-piece status and get in the hands of people who just love great listening. Whether or not that happens be sure to do yourself a favor and put this disc into heavy-rotation. You’ll be glad you did.