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Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba: I Speak Fula

Chris May By

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Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba
I Speak Fula
Sub Pop!
2010

Much has been made of the symbiosis between traditional Malian and roots North American musics, of which the "desert blues" of guitarist Ali Farka Toure (1939-2006) provides convincing evidence. Any remaining doubts about west African savannah-belt culture as a primary source of blues, country and rock'n'roll styles are blown out of the water by I Speak Fula, the truly awesome second album from the ngoni player Bassekou Kouyate and his band, Ngoni Ba ("big ngoni").

Kouyate was a collaborator of Toure's, and played an important role in the guitarist's outstanding Savane (World Circuit, 2006). But Ngoni Ba's first album, Segu Blue (Out/Here, 2007), gave little hint of the two-way Atlantic traffic which shapes its follow-up. The debut was, instead, a beautifully crafted archive recording, produced by Kouyate's longtime friend and Malian music scholar, Lucy Duran, which focused on acoustic ritual and social ngoni music, unmediated by overseas echoes or influences.

For two decades, however, Kouyate has been performing with North American roots musicians. The process began in 1990, when Kouyate met the guitarist Taj Mahal at a Tennessee banjo festival, and was almost literally pushed onstage by Mahal to jam with the assembled pickers. The two men's association has continued, and Kouyate has since also played with blues-rock singer Bonnie Raitt and banjo adventurer Bela Fleck. He has also performed with kora player Toumani Diabate's Symmetric Orchestra, which explores the shared ground between savannah-belt traditional music and global rock and pop. Diabate returns the compliment by guesting on two tracks on Kouyate's album.

All of these experiences come to fruition on I Speak Fula, and then some. The irresistible concoction is a brew of rock'n'roll speed and energy, raw blues and swamp rock licks played by the ngonis (and on two tracks by guest electric guitarist Vieux Farka Toure, Ali's son), complementary fleet-fingered ngoni picking which gives the instrument the flavor and phrasing of a country banjo, and rhythm breaks and stop-time passages, borrowed from American rock and blues, which break up the savannah-belt's typically relentless, rolling beat. At times it sounds like banjo player Earl Scruggs on Flatt & Scruggs' iconic "Rocky Mountain Breakdown," enriched by the electric acid blues of guitarist Jimi Hendrix, and percussion players whose US legacy began in the slave ensembles which were heard in New Orleans' Congo Square (before the white city fathers banned them).

The traffic is by no means one-way, and the North American sounds to be heard in I Speak Fula haven't simply been grafted on. They are, instead, emphases of signature sounds within Malian traditional music, spotlighted, as it were, to appeal to a global roots music audience. Kouyate's ngoni and Toure's guitar are almost indistinguishable and both speak an African language readily accessible to non-African audiences. The same goes for Zoumana Tereta's soku (spike fiddle), heard on one track, which is simultaneously deep African and deep southern hoe-down.

Kouyate and guest kamalengoni player Harouna Samake were featured by Béla Fleck on the title track to his marvelous Throw Down Your Heart (Rounder, 2009). I Speak Fula is more of the magical same. It's still only January, but this has to be one of the best African music albums of 2010, and may well prove to be the best.




Tracks: I Speak Fula; Jamana Be Diya; Musow; Torin Torin; Bambuga Blues; Amy; Saro; Ladon; Tineni; Falani; Moustapha.

Personnel: Bassekou Kouyate: solo ngoni, ngoniba; Amy Sacko: lead vocals (1-4, 6-9, 11), chorus; Omar Barou Kouyate: medium ngoni; Fousseyni Kouyate: ngoniba; Moussa Bah: bass ngoni; Alou Coulibaly: calabash, chorus; Moussa Sissoko: yabara, tamani; Kasse Mady Diabate: vocals (2); Vieux Farka Toure: electric guitar (5, 7); Toumani Diabate: kora (2, 9); Harouna Samake: kamalengoni (3, 4); Zoumana Tereta: lead vocal, soku (6); Andra Kouyate: chorus, lead vocals (5); Mah Soumano: chorus; Baba Sissoko: dunun (7); Baba Diabate: dunun (3); Jelimusoba: mpolon (11); Dramane Ze Konate: vocals, mpolon (bonus track).

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