“First there was African tribal music which evolved into slave songs which became the blues which gave birth to the funk. Bassekou and his band tell the whole of this journey in one chapter. The most delicious mix of the finest musical ingredients make a stew that warms the heart and shakes the hips. Trust me, it tastes good!”
Fatboy Slim (Mali, 2006)
“… a fantastic example of how music can lift your mind and soul at the same time … the perfect proof of how inspirational African music can be, how it can touch so many people on so many levels.” Damon Albarn (after hearing Bassekou & Ngoni ba in Mali, 2006)
“The album Segu Blue is a MUST for anyone seeking new musical adventures.” Dee Dee Bridgewater
“… a genius, a living proof that the blues comes from the region of Segu.”
“I was inspired watching music being performed in it’s truest form”
Scratch – The Roots
“There’s a delicious sound to this record, whose warm, cohesive textures linger in the mind long after it finishes, luring the listener to go and play it again … Remarkable.”Charlie Gillett, OBSERVER MUSIC MONTHLY
‘Segu Blue’ is the first solo album by Malian ngoni player Bassekou Kouyate. Bassekou is one of the true masters of the ngoni, an ancient traditional lute found throughout West Africa, and he has collaborated with many musicians in and outside of Mali: He played in the Symmetric trio alongside Toumani Diabate (kora) and Keletigui Diabate (balafon). He was part of Taj Mahal’s and Toumani Diabate’s ‘Kulanjan’ project, as well as being one of the key musicians on Ali Farka Toure’sposthumous album ‘Savane’ which was released July 2006. Most recently, he toured with Ali Farka Toure leaving a lasting impression on the audience as the band’s solo ngoni player.
Bassekou was born in a village called Garana, almost 40 miles from Segu, in the remote countryside on the banks of the Niger River. He was raised in a traditional musical environment, his mother a praise singer and his father and brothers exceptional ngoni players. Bassekou moved to Bamako when he was 19 years old where he met the young Toumani Diabate. By the late 1980s Bassekou was part of Toumani’s trio and they recorded their first albums together, ‘Songhai’ and ‘Djelika’. Bassekoumarried the singer Ami Sacko (the so-called “Tina Turner of Mali”) and they have been in high demand for the traditional Sunday wedding parties that happen in the streets of Bamako. Bassekou has now he has put together his own band, Ngoni ba (meaning “the big ngoni”), Mali’s first ngoni quartet.
The ngoni is one of Africa’s secrets still to be discovered. It is the key instrument for the griot culture. Unlike the kora whose history goes back only a few hundred years, the ngoni has been the main instrument in griot storytelling way back into the days of Soundiata Keita (the grave of Sundiata’s grandmother who died in the 13th century is near Garana). The repertoireBassekou plays is from the region of Segu, the heart of Bambara culture. Unlike mandenka griot music, Bambara music is pentatonic in nature, a music as close to the blues as you can get in Africa.
‘Segu Blue’ features guest musicians Kasse Mady Diabate, Lobi Traore, Lassana Diabate (incidentally, there is no Kora and no djembe on this album) and singers Zoumana Tereta and Bassekou’s wife, Ami Sacko. The album was produced by Lucy Durán, recorded at studio Bogolan in Bamako by Yves Wernert and mixed in London by Jerry Boys (the man responsible for recording and mixing ‘Buena Vista Social Club’ amongst others)…………….
The West African lute called the ngoni is a little akin to its descendent, the banjo. In music from the region, it is often employed as part of groups with additional instrumentation. Bassekou Kouyate, who’s worked with many Malian greats, takes it out of this context by leading a band with no less than four ngonis and producing some of the loveliest music to come from the area in recent years. Some of it is quite dramatic, like the opener, “Tabali Te,” but for the most part there is a gorgeous, lulling gentility to everything. The material is all original, but with a traditional spirit and with much derived from the repertoire of the griots. The big exception is “Lament for Ali Farka,” an elegy to Kouyate’s late employer, the great Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré. Another local guitar player, Lobi Traoré, is featured on “Banani,” and singer Zoumana Tereta is a guest on several cuts, showing off a very impressive voice. Put it all together and you have a disc that’s nothing short of stunning……..by Chris Nickson………….
First things first - there’s a delicious sound to this record, whose warm, cohesive textures linger in the mind long after it finishes, luring the listener to go and play it again.
It looks good, too. The cover shows four musicians seated on the floor of a living room, presumably in a house in Bamako, each of them cradling a ngoni, Mali’s unique stringed instrument. The only confusion is, where are the women whose voices define the sound of the album at least as much as those ngonis? We have to dig into the credits to discover the name of the main vocalist, Ami Sacko, Bassekou Kouyate’s wife.
But look more carefully at that front cover picture. Amy is there, after all, in a framed photo on the wall behind the men. ‘Aha,’ as she sings in 'Jonkoloni’. 'Aha.’ And what a find she is, another great singer from Mali, very different from the others. Where the characteristic mode of Malian vocalists tends towards dramatic stridency, Ami sings softly, beguilingly, insidiously slipping inside our defences.
You may already have a record featuring Bassekou, the ngoni player who matched the late Ali Farka Toure on the majestic title track of his posthumous album, Savane . Bassekou was also a member of Toumani Diabate’s Symmetric Orchestra on last year’s Boulevard de L'Independance , having been involved in both Songhai 2 (1994) and Kalanjan (1999), the bestselling collaborative projects co-produced by Lucy Duran, who is sole producer here.
But whatever you might have heard before does not really prepare you for this, the first time that a quartet of ngoni players has been recorded. How the Kronos Quartet must wish they could sound so perfectly knitted together. It’s a seamless blend that defies you to pick out who is playing what. Perhaps we can isolate the bass notes at the bottom end, but the notes played by the other three players are so intricately intertwined, you would swear they were all played by just one person on one instrument, perhaps the 21-string kora. The long instrumental passages of 'Nogoni Fola’ should give us a chance to unpick the patterns, but instead the whole thing is like an aural illusion, a magical trick of sound: how do they do that?
There’s a similar sense of cohesion to the vocals on 'Bassekou’ and 'Jonkoloni’, where the lines of Ami Sacko weave in and out of the responses from the supporting male and female backing vocalists. All of this over a restless, shuffling pulse from the ngoni quartet. With every play, the concoction becomes ever more addictive. This is the Bamana sound of Segu, the region to the east of Bamako, which has in recent years been overlooked by record labels. Duran’s impeccable production will surely inspire others to scour Segu for other projects after this one surfaces. But they are unlikely to find anything as remarkable…..Charlie Gillett by Guardian review…………
The ngoni is an instrument, the ngoni bâ is the deeper version of the instrument, and at first I looked at that title as if someone had offered me an album credited to Bassekou Kouyaté and Bongo Drums, or Bassekou Kouyaté and Grand Piano. It was a while before I found out that Ngoni Ba is the name of the whole group. They all play ngoni. We are told that this is Mali’s first ngoni quartet and that Kouyaté is one of the instrument’s great modernizers. He comes with a pedigree. Those ngoni who were on Ali Farka Touré‘s final album? He was one of them. Look at the middle of the Savane booklet and there he is, wearing a hat with a wide brim. What about Toumani Diabaté‘s Symmetric Orchestra? He was in that too. In fact he’s known Diabaté since the 1980s. His wife is a professional singer. This is a man who arrives clothed in expectations.
The most appealing description of a ngoni that I’ve read comes from an Amazon poster named McZakka who was reviewing Segu Blue. The instrument, he wrote, “looks like a stocky cricket bat.” I read that, then looked at the front cover of the album and laughed. He’s right, the ngoni there look like big yellow nerf bats, the kind you might give to a child at the beach. Kouyaté‘s own instrument looks slimmer. “[A] simple desert lute,” McZakka adds, but the ngoni doesn’t sound like a lute. It has a deeper, meditative sound, hardish but not unpleasant. This is a soft-edged hardness, like an asphalt road with clay verges. On this album the ngoni makes a meditative sound, as if the notes are tumbling down into the open air with nothing to stop them falling.
Segu Blue would suit someone who likes either Diabaté or Touré or both. There are elements of both of them in Kouyaté‘s style. The ngoni‘s meditations put it in the same emotional family as Diabaté‘s kora but the songs have Touré‘s blues strum. The difference between Touré and Kouyaté lies in Kouyaté‘s willingness to have fun. Touré‘s music was often serious. He didn’t sound like the sort of man you’d kick around with for a chuckle. Kouyaté does. He doesn’t do it all the time, but he does it often enough. In “Ngoni Fola” he gets a group of people clapping in time behind the strings at the beginning and it’s as if we’re jumping into a kindergarten chant or a musical, that sense of anticipation as you enter a song. This is going to get exciting, it suggests. In comes something that sounds like a banjo. The ngoni is assumed to be the banjo’s African ancestor, and once you know that, this short intervention comes off like a grin and a wink. The musicians, and us know something in common.
In “Bassekou” the watery pling of the ngoni rocks to a steady beat, not stated outright, but lying under everything, kicking the song along. The percussion sounds like someone clicking his or her tongue. It’s a human sound, a body sound, acoustic, and tactile. Then there is a sound similar to an orutu fiddle, a citron sound, sharp as a lime. The four ngoni bounce swiftly and closely together, now a quick babble, now a trot. All the skill of Kouyaté‘s long career is in there, popping quickly off his fingers.
Comparisons between this and blues are easy to make. Shift “Mbowdi” lower and slower, remove the chorus of women, take away all of the musicians except one, make the singer tell you in English about a woman who done him wrong, and you’d be in the US. But there are differences, and anyone who bought this expecting to find nothing but a proto-blues album would come away disappointed. In a track like “The River Tune” the difference is distinct. The bluesy chug is there but now it is delicate, it is not expressing human emotions but those of a constantly changing environment, which are less despairing, more contemplative. The male singers have a husky lightness, not the grinding blues mouthful-of-mud. “Andra’s Song” is something Kandia Kouyaté might have put her voice to. This is Malian new-roots done with style and fidelity. If Kouyaté is trying to turn himself into the Diabaté of the ngoni, an innovator who takes ancient instruments and tunes and moves them forward, then he’s going about it in the right way. This album is excellent…….popmatters………..
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.
Bassekou Kouyaté & Ngoni Ba: Segu Blue (Out Here Records, 2007)
Bassekou Kouyaté & Ngoni Ba: I Speak Fula (Out Here Records, 2009)
Bassekou Kouyaté & Ngoni Ba: Jama Ko (Out Here Records, 2013)
Bassekou Kouyaté & Ngoni Ba: Ba Power (Glitterbeat Records, 2015)