Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba – I Speak Fula

‘Even if there is a war going on and it is difficult to travel, a griot, with his ngoni slung around his back, was always allowed through, because it was known that he was going to play for a leader, and perhaps act as an intermediary for political negotiations,” remarked Bassekou Kouyate recently. Where he comes from, music has a few more more important functions than mere entertainment. The Malian bandleader’s axe of choice is the ngoni, a stringed instrument commonly referred to as the ancestor of the banjo with a similar clanking tone, rapid attack and decay. He gets major props in his native land for resurrecting the instrument from obscurity, adding both new techniques as well as western influences and modern electronic guitar effects. It’s not known if he’s ever been pressed into duty as a negotiator between warring factions. On US tour with Bela Fleck starting this month promoting their somewhat defiant new album I Speak Fula, Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba have come to conquer.

This is urban Malian music: spiky, circular and hypnotic in the indigenous folk tradition, but packed with imaginative licks and production touches that reveal how diverse Kouyate’s influences are, from fellow Malian Ali Farka Toure to Hendrix. It’s a mix of originals as well as new arrangements of historical ballads from over the years. What Tinariwen has done for the Tuaregs, these guys could do for what’s coming out of the cool kids’ ghetto blasters on the streets of Bamako – this stuff absolutely rocks.

The cd opens energetically with boisterous, spiraling ngoni and kora (West African harp)- throughout the album, interplay, much of it absolutely psychedelic, abounds. The first of the two most extraordinary tracks here is a tribute to Kouyate’s brother – who died while the album was being recorded – with Kouyate and Malian desert blues scion Vieux Farka Toure playing dizzying wah-wah clusters around each other. The other, Ladon, is a feast of scurrying blues runs, Kouyate showing off his bag of tricks with a big rapidfire crescendo of blues licks that could be American, or not. The band builds this to an unexpectedly explosive coda at the end: acoustic Malian heavy metal.

The closest thing to rock here is the impressively feminist Musow, fast and flurrying with wah-wah ngoni, building up to the end of the verse with a neat three-chord sequence, along with a big 6/8 ballad that could be British or Appalachian except for the language, Kouyate coming in hard against Vieux Farka Toure’s pensive, spacious guitar, nudging the guitarist to elevate his game. There’s also a swaying number that incorporates what sound like elements of both delta and Piedmont blues (or maybe not – this is where all that stuff originated, anyway), a dedication to Kouyate’s wife and bandmate/singer Amy with an intense, hypnotic jam between ngoni and Zoumana Tereta’s fiddle, and the pensive Moustafa, where the ngoni sounds almost like a vibraphone. Definitely the most exciting thing to come out of Africa since Tinariwen’s latest, last year. The album, believe it or not, is out on Sub Pop (the folks who brought you Nirvana).

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February 5, 2010 - Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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