Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba: Segu Blue

Chris May By

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Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba
Segu Blue
Out Here

Bassekou Kouyate is a virtuoso of the ngoni (West African lute), approximating the larger kora (West African harp) in sound but with a tougher, more percussive edge. Outside his home country of Mali, where he is widely celebrated, Kouyate is known for his work with artists like the late guitarist Ali Farka Toure—he was featured on Toure's posthumous album Savane (World Circuit, 2006)—kora player Toumani Diabete and American roots musician Taj Mahal.

Segu Blue, Kouyate's debut recording as leader, ought to fast-track him into the front ranks of African music star exports. It's an album of understated but awesome beauty, full of lush melodies and supple rhythms, deep, peaceful and healing; happier sounding than Ali Farka Toure's music, but equally weighty and mesmeric.

Kouyate's band, Ngoni Ba ("the big ngoni") is a quartet of ngoni players—treble, mid range and bass—augmented by Kouyate's wife, Ami Sacko, on lead vocals, and two percussionists. Guest singers and musicians are featured on six of the fourteen tracks. The earthy tenor Zoumani Tereta takes lead vocals on two tunes; shades-of-Ali Farka Toure electric guitarist Lobi Traoré is featured on another. All the tunes are drawn from, or closely based on, traditional Bambara music from the Segu region of Mali: three are traditional, all but one of the others are composed by Kouyate.

The album is almost as much Sacko's as it is Kouyate's (in the Malian capital, Bamako, husband and wife are the musicians-of-choice at wedding celebrations, feast days and other traditional gatherings). She's known locally as "the Tina Turner of Mali," but this must be for her looks more than her voice, which—apart from her cathartic delivery on "Lament For Ali Farka"—is lightfooted and soft-textured.

Behind Sacko, the four ngoni players weave in and out of each other's lines with such intricate intimacy that, pitch aside, it's often hard to tell where one instrument stops and another one starts. The effect is rather like hearing a broader-ranged kora played by eight hands. The treble and mid range players favour crisp, brisk, tumbling riffs, the bass anchors them with more measured ostinatos. "Segu Blue" itself is one of just two instrumental tracks, and the piece closest to Ali Farka Toure's savannah blues in feel and notation.

Segu Blue was produced by the British writer and broadcaster Lucy Duran in Mali, and mixed by Jerry Boys (of Buena Vista Social Club repute) in London. Average track length is four and a half minutes, and if I have one quibble it's that it would have been nice to have a few extended ngoni jams. Despite that, if the album doesn't end up close to the top of most people's best-of-year lists in nine months time, it will certainly be getting five stars and a mango in mine.

Visit Bassekou Kouyate at MySpace.

Tracks: Tabali Te; Bassekou; Jonkoloni; Juru Nani; Mbowdi; The River Tune; Andra's Song; Ngoni Fola; Banani; Bala; Segu Tonjon; Sinsani; Lament for Ali Farka; Segu Blue (Poyi).

Personnel: Bassekou Kouyaté: lead ngoni, ngoni ba; Oumar Barou Kouyaté: ngoni; Moussa Bah: ngoni ba; Andra Kouyate: bass ngoni; Ami Sacko Ma Soumano: lead vocals, backing vocals; Alou Coulibaly: calebasse; Moussa Sissoko: percussion. Guests: Zoumana Tereta: lead vocals, soku (5,10); Kasse Mady Diabaté: lead vocals (4,12); Lobi Traoré: lead vocals, electric guitar (9); Lassana Diabaté: balafon (10); Habib Sangaré: bolon (6,10).


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