Album Review/Dominic Valvona

Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni ba ‘Miri’
(Outhere Records) 25th January 2019

The courtly sound of the Mali Empire from the 13th century, accompanying the griot tradition of storytelling for an age, the (usually) dried-animal skin wrapped, canoe-shaped ngoni lute has been electrifyingly revitalized in recent years thanks in part to the virtuoso dexterity and energy of one of its leading practitioners, Malian legend, Bassekou Kouyate.

Since making his debut just over a decade ago, Bassekou has quickly built up an enviable reputation both in Mali and internationally; arguably, through his myriad of collaborations, helping to share the versatile range of emotions and rhythms that emanate from the ngoni to a worldwide audience; inspiring, even, a new generation to pick this atavistic instrument up.

The ngoni (which more or less, when translated from the Bambara language of Western Africa, means lute) is notable for both its rapid blurry rhythms and spindled, articulated picking. On previous albums Bassekou has pushed the ngoni to its limits. Following up the more electrified 2015 LP, Ba Power (which made our albums of the year feature), with a fifth album of innovative paeans, hymns, protestations and calls for peace, Bassekou takes a more reflective pause for thought on Miri; gazing out across his crisis-ridden homeland, contemplating on how the fragmented landscape and people can be brought back together for the common good.

Backed as always by the family band that features his wife, the soulful and beautifully voiced ‘nightingale of the north’, Amy Secko, and his son, Madou Kouyate, on bass ngoni, but also now including his niece Kankou (making a special guest appearance on vocals), the Bamana entitled encapsulation of ‘dream’, or ‘contemplation’, Miri record touches base with Bassekou’s roots: Reconnecting, we’re told, with his Sega Blues solo debut of a decade before.

Though the Islamist insurgency that initially boosted – but soon hijacked – Mali’s indigenous Tuareg nomads decades-long fight for an independent state within the country’s Northern Eastern borders has been largely subdued, terrorist style attacks, corruption and adverse effects of climate change have conspired to keep Mali in a constant flux of turmoil. Bassekou in somber mood peaceably reacts to all these events; using Mali’s geography and history to either warn, condemn or preach forgiveness and unity.

The title-track itself, with its cycle of jazzy ngoni grooves and subtle percussive strikes, plaintively draws the listener’s gaze to the increasingly parched Niger River that runs alongside Bassekou’s remote village hometown of Garama, in the south of Mali. The consequences of this lifeline and essential water supply drying up are disastrous. Further tensions are referred to on the reedy-sounding cantering call for peaceful resolution, ‘Tabital Pulaaku’. Featuring the conciliatory humble tones of fellow Malian, guitarist/singer and a former disciple of the revered Ali Farka Touré, Afel Bocoum, this beautifully articulated song implores the wandering cattle herder Fula nomad community and local cultivators to stop the in-fighting and settle disputes amicably – a fractious state of hostility that has led to many deaths between the two groups.

Elsewhere on the album, Mali’s ancient past is used as an analogy for the jealousy, corruption and worst excesses of individual greed, currently crippling the country. The Abdoulaye Diabaté – born into the griot tradition – sagaciously lends his vocals to Bassekou’s experimental bottleneck slide ngoni techniques buoyant ‘Wele ni’; Diabaté weaving a parable from the Segou Koro royal court of the Bamana Kings, drawing parallels between the tale of a king whose self aggrandizement and position of power has separated him from both his people and reality, and the current Mali government.

Renowned as much for his collaborations and guest stars on previous records, Bassekou has crossed instruments with such luminaries as Taj Mahal and Samba Touré in the past. Miri is no exception, featuring as it does Malian sensation (and member of the Bamada West African supergroup) Habib Koité on the staccato Arabia to Mali desert traversing, hoofed percussion backed ‘Deli’, and the traditional instruments fused with rap Cuban troupe, Madera Limpia, on the Hispaniola jostling, lively ‘Wele Cuba’. This pool of talented guest spots also boasts the deft skills of Morocco classical and jazz multi instrumentalist Majid Bekkar – ascending and descending with lilt scenic accents a suitably diaphanous plucked mood on ‘Kanougon’ – and Snarky Puppy and Bokanté helmsman, motivator, Michael League. All of who congruously and skillfully accentuate the Bassekou family sound or bolster its energy further.

Concentrating the mind, the events and turmoil of a divided Mali inspire Bassekou to hold those most dearest even nearer (from family to friends) and pay tribute to those that have passed on (including an air-y beatitude to his mother on the album’s finale, ‘Yakare’). All the while attempting to heal the rifts through the soulfully adroit and fire-y ngoni music of the past and present.

A visceral picture of a land in crisis, yet one that has hope for a united Mali, Miri is a sublime connective and rallying collection of compelling and thrilling performances and songs (Sacko especially on fine form delivering the most tender and rich vocals throughout); another essential album from the ngoni master.


Note: Glasgow friends can catch Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni ba performing this album and tracks from the back catalogue live at the internationally renowned Celtic Connections festival in the city this month; playing the Old Fruitmarket on Friday 25th January. Details…


Words: Dominic Valvona

Vieux Farka Touré  ‘Samba’
Six Degrees Records,  12th May 2017

Lucky enough to have witnessed firsthand the erudite guitar majestic skills of one of Mali’s leading artists last year, as part of Glasgow’s Celtic Connections Festival line-up, I still find myself decidedly jealous of the intimate small audience that were invited to Vieux Farka Touré’s Woodstock Session later that same year in October. A studio recording with a difference, played out and developed live in front of just fifty lucky people in Saugerties, N.Y., Touré’s latest blurs the boundaries between performance and the processes of making an album.

Ever the consummate maestro and backed by an equally accomplished band of musicians, there was some initial apprehension on Touré’s on allowing an audience in to the studio. Though we have the finished product, free of any mistakes, restarts and disagreements, it seems this audience far from unnerving the band, egged it on, with the results sounding effortless and natural. There were overdubs of course and one of the songs was recorded back home in Mali – the calabash driven Ni Negarba. But far from cutting corners or relying on the back catalogue, Touré has fashioned an entirely new songbook of vocal and instrumental material for Samba. Some of which amorphously touches upon unfamiliar influences, including reggae on the unapologetically roots-y swaying Ouaga.


Still a commanding presence, though he makes it look easy and so serene, emanating almost uninterrupted waves of phaser-effect guitar permutations and nuanced fretboard noodling, Touré continues to languidly merge his own lyrical form of worship and goodwill with the blues, rock and R&B. Often alluded to as some kind of Saharan Hendrix, his heritage and reputation is actually linked to the more urbane capital of Bamako in the southwest of Mali, which has its very own amalgamation of styles and unique history. Still, those desert blues styles, synonymous with the Tuareg especially, do crossover and can be detected in Touré’s music.


Touré is as the Songhai title of his new album Samba translates, the second son of the late Ali Farka Touré, a doyen of the Mali music scene himself who left an indelible mark. If we expand on the title’s meaning, “Samba” is a byword for “one who never breaks”, “who never runs from threats, who is not afraid”. It is even said that those adorned with the name are “blessed with good luck.” Inspired by his ancestry, imbued with three generations, Touré’s album is suffused with special tributes to his family. In the mode of a praise song, the spindly weaved heartfelt Mariam pays homage to the last born of the family, his youngest sister, but is also by extension a paean to both the women of the Peule and “all sisters of the world”. Samba Si Kari, based on a song Touré’s grandfather used to sing to him as a child, pays a reflective impassioned tribute to his parents. Expanding the goodwill further, to those outside the ancestral line, he’s also penned, what sounds like, a hoof-cantering percussive camel ride with celestial desert sky illuminations keyboard – courtesy of old pal Idan Raichel –, sweet dedication to his manager and friend Eric Herman’s daughter Maya. The press release offers a further subtext to this particular song, one of multifaith cohesion; Touré a Muslim and Herman a Jew, spreading a message of tolerance.


Outside the family sphere, Touré confronts both Mali’s recent Jihadist takeover – only stopped and defeated by the intervention of the country’s former colonial masters, France – on the radiantly rippling, chorus of voices, funky blues number Homafu Wawa, and environmental issues on the dexterously nimble-fingered bluesy rock, Nature.


The almost never-ending efflux, the constant lapping waves of textures that Touré plays, which offer a cyclonic bed on which to add the deftest licks, have never sounded so sagacious and free flowing. This ain’t no Saharan Hendrix at work, this is something else entirely, and better for it. This is the devotional, earthy soul of Mali, channeled through a six-string electric guitar.


Originally scheduled for 2015, the Woodstock Session would have still been a revelatory showcase and classic, but with that extra year, with the travails of being in constant demand on the road and the rapid turn of events Samba in 2017 makes even more sense, resonating with a message of respect, peace and tolerance.

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