Best Artist Award Winner
Miri with Ngoni ba (Outhere Records)
Mali’s Bassekou Kouyaté has been a Songlines hero ever since we gave his debut, Segu Blue, a rave Top of the World review back in 2007 (#43). By the time he made this record he was already 40 but had established himself as a force in Malian music on the ngoni. Segu Blue, however, was a landmark. Heavily electrified, for the first time the album placed the ngoni centre stage as a lead rather than a backing instrument.
Innovator and proud upholder of tradition at the same time, over five albums in a dozen years with his band Ngoni ba, he has smartly crafted his music to appeal to both African and Western audiences without compromising the integrity of his roots. His third album, Jama Ko, won him the Best Artist award in 2014 and he has illustrated his versatility by playing with everyone from Cuba’s Eliades Ochoa, Damon Albarn and the Orchestra of Syrian Musicians to Kronos Quartet, Béla Fleck and Sir Paul McCartney. “The ngoni allows any musical experience because it can be harmonised with all kind of sounds and rhythms. You can play blues, jazz and classical,” he says.
His high-octane electricity has earned him the tag ‘the Jimi Hendrix of the ngoni,’ but 2019’s Miri (translating as ‘Dream’ or ‘Contemplation’ in Bamana) returned to a largely acoustic sound, lithe and sinewy, with the vocals of his wife, Amy Sacko, to the fore on a set of thoughtful compositions about love, friendship and family. Guest appearances from Snarky Puppy’s Michael League and Cuban singer Madera Limpia illustrate his ongoing sense of bold adventure yet the record remains essentially a potent affirmation of his heritage. “We have an incredible tradition in Mali, but the world is changing, and we must change with it,” he says. “I can’t keep copying the music my great grandparents played. I have to play our music the way I feel it, in a way that people can relate to today.”