Words by Nigel Williamson
To these ears, the best track on Bassekou Kouyaté’s splendid 2006 solo debut Segu Blue was ‘Banani’, a dirty, low-down blues featuring the streetwise electric guitar playing of the late Lobi Traoré. Bassekou wasn’t keen on the track, which he felt was at odds with the more elegant sound of the rest of the album, and he took some persuading to include it. He seems to have come round, because his third album with Ngoni Ba is predominantly in the same mode: a thrilling, urgent mix of African blues, rock and funk, with Bassekou’s electrified banjo-like ngoni cranked up to the max.
The subject matter has undoubtedly shaped the record’s pulsating turbulence. As outlined in the cover story of Songlines issue #89, Bassekou made the record in Bamako last year, just as Mali was descending into the political turmoil that has resulted in music being banned in Islamist-controlled northern Mali. Songs such as ‘Ne Me Fatigue Pas’ and the title-track seethe with Bassekou’s anger and frustration at what is happening, tinged with a deep sadness. ‘Kele Magni’ has a loping Touareg rhythm and features the raw, emotional voice of Timbuktu’s Khaira Arby. It’s a tribute to the hard-pressed people of the northern deserts, where the crisis is at its worse. Even the traditional praise songs are topical. ‘Sinaly’, for example, which features the majestic voice of Kasse Mady Diabaté, is about a 19th century Bamana king celebrated for resisting forced Islamisation.
The album’s striking dynamic is aided by a potent bunch of rock’n’roll collaborators, including co-producer Howard Bilerman (of Arcade Fire fame), Taj Mahal and Canada’s Barr Brothers. Fashioning artistic triumph out of political adversity, Mali’s desperate plight has created Bassekou Kouyaté’s finest hour.
TRACK TO TRY: Sinaly