Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni ba I Speak Fula Review

Album. Released 2009.  

BBC Review

Deserves to find its way out of the world music ghetto and onto the world stage.

Louis Pattison 2009

The influence of African pop music on Western musicians like Foals and Vampire Weekend has been much talked up in recent years, but it’s worth reminding one’s self that influence runs both ways.

Bassekou Kouyate is something of a maverick and innovator in his homeland of Mali. Skilled on the ngoni, a wooden lute traditional to West Africa, Kouyate was reportedly one of the first young African musicians to dispense with tradition and play his instrument while standing as one might solo on a guitar – controversial, at the time, but a style now far from unusual amongst West Africa’s more forward-thinking groups.

I Speak Fula is the follow-up to Segu Blue, Kouyate’s widely-acclaimed 2007 album with his band Ngoni ba. Since Kouyate's stand-up playing, he and his band have made further innovations to traditional ngoni play, adding a low-tuned customised bass ngoni and adding extra strings to make their instruments more harmonically flexible. The results are pretty spectacular. Astonishingly intricate melodies dancing over and across each other, long winding solos unfurling over clacking percussion, while the vocals – male harmonies and clear song from Kouyate’s wife, Amy Sacko – are soft in tone, but gain in power as the tempo rises.

Yet there’s never any doubt from the tone and delivery that this is essentially party music: the title track is played in a style called koreduga, which despite its somewhat tricky 9/8 rhythm, functions as dancing music in Mali. Jamana Be Diya, a variant on a popular Gambian song, doffs its cap to Barack Obama. And a couple of tracks featuring Vieux Farka Touré, son of Ali Farka Touré, add bluesy electric guitar to the mix – notably Saro, a prayer to loved ones dedicated to Kouyate’s late brother.

Intricate in play but endlessly listenable, I Speak Fula deserves to find its way out of the world music ghetto and onto the world stage.

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