By Nigel Williamson
Over the last few years, Bassekou Kouyaté has revolutionised the gutbucket sound of the ancient West African banjo known as the ngoni, adding electric pickups, distortion and effects pedals to its funky, snapping strings. Yet despite such innovations, his first two albums, Segu Blue and I Speak Fula, were still essentially traditional African records, albeit of an impressively adventurous stripe. His third album, 2013’s Jama Ko rocked harder with a full-throttle roar, a conscious intensification driven by a new, younger band that included two of his sons.
Ba Power takes the integration of African tribal rhythms and Western rock’n’roll a step further. In part, that’s down to a number of non-African collaborators, including Dave Smith, drummer with Robert Plant’s Sensational Space Shifters, lead guitarist Chris Brokaw and producer Chris Eckman. Their presence lends an undoubted rock’n’roll swagger; although thankfully they manage to augment Bassekou’s Afro-rock vision rather than adulterate it.
Opener ‘Siran Fen’ establishes the template, as Bassekou’s amplified ngoni duels with the lead guitar over a propulsive rhythm and call-and-response vocals led by the intense, keening voice of Bassekou’s wife, Ami Sacko. ‘Aye Sira Bla’ ventures into Afro-prog territory with the assistance of trumpet and keyboards by Jon Hassell. ‘Fama Magni’ is a traditional African melody, featuring haunting single-string fiddle and dramatic rock guitars, while on the pulsating ‘Waati’, Bassekou’s ngoni spills shards of distorted notes over a razor-sharp riff that builds to a hypnotic climax. A landmark album.