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…

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